Asean warned against overly ambitious human rights body

June 12th, 2008 - 4:42 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Chulalongkorn University
Singapore, June 12 (DPA) Too much ambition could easily scuttle the establishment of a human rights body of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), a workshop on forming the agency was warned Thursday. “Let us have no illusions that the road ahead will be easy,” Raymond Lim, Singapore’s second minister for foreign affairs, said in outlining what lies ahead for the high-level panel that is to draft the “terms of reference” for the rights body on the sidelines of the Asean ministerial meeting to be held in July.

Leaders of 10-member Asean - which includes Myanmar, one of the nations most criticized in the world for its human rights record - pledged to set up the human rights body when they signed the organization’s first charter in November. The charter would also make Asean a legal entity, set democracy as a regional goal and turn the bloc into a single market by 2015.

But its lack of an effective enforcement mechanism, continuation of decision-making by consensus and retention of Asean’s tenet of no intervention in members’ affairs have been the focus of widespread criticism.

“We are engaged in an unprecedented enterprise for Asean,” Lim said in the keynote address. “We should cross the river by feeling the stones beneath our feet.”

“We should allow the functions of this human rights body to evolve,” he said at the meeting in Singapore, which now holds the rotating Asean chairmanship. “Too much ambition can as easily scuttle this important project as too little.”

Myanmar’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in September overshadowed the November summit.

It threatens to haunt the next meeting as well, analysts said, after its military junta initially refused international aid and stalled on granting visas to aid workers after the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis, which left 133,000 people dead or missing, as well as the continuation of house arrest for Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“A few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that Asean would commit itself to establishing a human rights body of any kind,” Lim told the participants, including Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan and Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, chairman of a working group for the human rights mechanism.

Lim stressed the importance of ensuring the body is credible and meaningful to its members, adding, “We must be realistic. However, a direction has been set from which there is no turning back.”

An Asean-level human rights commission could push for more effective implementation of rules and norms concerning human rights, said Viti, a law professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Although the bloc was essentially a political organization driven by economics, it could still address human rights issues in a “creative, innovative and meaningful manner,” said Vitit, who is also the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.

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