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Southeast Asian foreign ministers were set to endorse the region’s first ever human rights body Monday, despite criticisms that it will be toothless to tackle rogue members like Myanmar.
Officials meeting in the Thai resort island of Phuket ahead of the continent’s main security forum later this week are also expected to discuss the deadly hotel bombings in Jakarta and North Korea’s nuclear programme.
But the main focus will be on the landmark watchdog proposed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for which ministers will agree final terms before its official launch by leaders of the bloc in October.
According to a draft seen by AFP, the rights body will lack powers to punish violators such as military-ruled Myanmar, and can at best require its 10 member nations to provide reports on their internal rights situations.
Rights groups said in a joint letter to Thailand’s foreign minister Kasit Piromya that the new body’s remit would “fall far too short of international standards” and asked to meet Kasit to discuss their points.
The rights body in its current form “may not only disappoint all peoples in ASEAN, but also risks compromising the international standing of ASEAN,” said the letter signed by Forum-Asia and Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy, two leading regional advocacy groups.
ASEAN has faced persistent criticism for failing to censure military-ruled Myanmar — the group’s so-called problem child since it joined in 1997 — for its treatment of democracy activists including detained Aung San Suu Kyi.
The ruling junta sparked fresh international outrage in May by putting the Nobel Peace laureate on trial following a bizarre incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside house.
On Sunday, Myanmar authorities arrested around 20 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after they had marked the anniversary of her father’s death in 1947.
But a draft of the rights body’s terms of reference affirms ASEAN’s underlying principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, which has been used by some members to fend off criticism about rights abuses.
It lists no sanctions for countries that fail to provide the required reports on their rights situations and it rejects notions of a universal standard of human rights.
The draft says the body will promote rights “within the regional context,” bearing in mind national, historical and religious difference and “taking into account the balance between rights and responsibilities.”
Kasit on Sunday admitted that there had been compromises to ensure that Myanmar signed on for the rights body, but he defended it by saying that it was still an important step for the region.
He said Myanmar had given details to fellow ASEAN nations on Sunday about the junta’s preparations for elections in 2010, including election law and the establishment of an election commission, he said.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said endorsing the body would be a “good beginning.”
Human rights have been a perennial challenge for ASEAN in the 42 years since it was founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Its members now include an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship and two communist states.
The annual ASEAN foreign ministers meeting on Monday comes ahead of the 27-member ASEAN regional forum later this week, which groups the bloc’s members along with the United States, the EU, China, Japan and other countries.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due in Phuket on Wednesday for talks that are likely to include the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
The twin suicide bombings at hotels in the Indonesian capital on Friday which killed eight people are also set for discussion, officials said.