Southeast Asian nations headed into a week of security and political talks yesterday looking to seal a landmark cooperation deal but sharply divided on how to deal with human rights abuses -- and each other.
Despite two years of work, the 10-nation ASEAN bloc failed to hammer out agreement on a proposed human rights commission as part of a new charter that the group will approve this week and formally adopt later in the year.
Diplomats said strong opposition from military-ruled Myanmar, a bane of ASEAN and a target of international sanctions, had helped scupper the commission.
"There was no agreement," one diplomat who asked not to be named said.
The charter is intended to turn ASEAN, which marks its 40th anniversary next month, into a rules-based organization roughly along the lines of the EU, with norms that all countries adhere to.
Struggling to shake off a tradition of non-interference in each other's affairs, however, the bloc could not agree on how to punish those who violate those norms or on a human rights commission to investigate members' behavior.
Sanctions for punishment have been ruled out of the charter, and yesterday's failure on the commission means the bloc effectively has only a matter of weeks to try again before the document is adopted at a Singapore summit in November.
"There is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the charter of the United Nations," Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo of the Philippines -- whose country has been pressing the issue -- said on Saturday as the talks dragged on.
"It's a universal desire that there must be a human rights commission, and I believe that ASEAN can do no less," Romulo said.
Member states have also battled over whether to abandon their policy of operating on consensus in favor of taking decisions by vote -- a move which would also amount to forcing individual countries to abide by group rules.
That has been a particularly tricky question when it comes to Myanmar.
The pariah state, formerly known as Burma, has drawn international sanctions as a result of its slow moves to restore democracy and the continued house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Non-interference in internal affairs may have been the factor that has kept socially responsible ASEAN members silent over human rights violations in the past," said Tint Swe, a member of her political party living in exile.
"The time has come to change that attitude," he said.
The foreign ministers of ASEAN, which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, were to open their meetings yesterday night.
Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win was expected to brief the ministers on the latest developments in the country, but diplomats said they expected little new from the hermit state despite mounting world pressure for reforms.
"We want to hear something more tangible from the minister," said a senior Southeast Asian diplomat who declined to be named.
A "roadmap" laid out by the junta to restore democracy has been derided as a sham.
The country has been ruled by the military since 1962, and Aung San Suu Kyi's party was not allowed to govern in spite of winning the elections in 1990.
Apart from the contentious issues, diplomats said, 90 percent of the rest of the charter is on track as the group looks ahead to a possible regional free-trade zone and better cooperation on terrorism and nuclear power.
The bloc will also review a regional nuclear non-proliferation treaty and set up a watchdog to see that nuclear material from power plants does not end up being used for non-peaceful means.
Meanwhile Asia's main security grouping, the ASEAN Regional Forum, is scheduled to hold its annual two-day meeting starting on Wednesday.
The forum includes all ASEAN member states as well as key partners including the EU, the US, Australia, China, Russia, India and Pakistan.
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