Tue, Nov 20, 2007 - Page 1 News List

ASEAN creates rights review body

AGENCIES , SINGAPORE

Southeast Asian countries put the finishing touches yesterday on a landmark charter that will create an agency to review the region's human rights -- though it contains no powers to punish notorious violators like Myanmar.

The regional constitution will be signed by ASEAN leaders at their annual summit today, after foreign ministers yesterday approved the draft that took more than two years to seal.

"The high point of the summit will be the signing of the ASEAN Charter," Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo (楊榮文) said. "It will take us an important step forward in regional integration, to a higher level."

Myanmar, one of the 10 members of ASEAN, was pleased with the charter despite calls for a human rights arm that could focus on abuses by its junta, Myanmar's senior diplomat U Aung Bwa said.

"We have a very good charter. I think everybody should be happy. It's quite balanced," U Aung Bwa said in an interview, adding he did not believe Myanmar's internal problems should be the subject of intense scrutiny at the four-day summit.

The long-overdue ASEAN charter is aimed at formally turning the 40-year-old organization -- often derided as a powerless talk shop -- into a rules-based legal entity. That means ASEAN can sue and be sued, and will be held accountable for all the treaties and agreements it signs.

The charter still needs to be ratified by parliaments of member countries.

"It's a good move to give substance to ASEAN after 40 years of our existence. It will change from an informal body, a loose organization, into one with a legal perspective," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said.

One of the most significant pledges in the charter is to set up a regional human rights body. Critics note that it will have limited impact, given that it will not be able to punish governments that violate human rights of their citizens.

"I'm not sure if it will have teeth but it will certainly have a tongue," Yeo said, referring to the agency's right to admonish and criticize violators. "It will certainly have moral influence if nothing else. But these are details for the future."

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