AP Exclusive: ASEAN human rights body told to protect members from foreign interference

By Jim Gomez, Associated Press Writer, 21 Nov 2007

SINGAPORE – A human rights body to be set up by Southeast Asian nations should not intervene in domestic human rights problems, but instead protect countries from foreign meddling, according to confidential recommendations by the region’s diplomats.

The recommendations were made in a report seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday. It was commissioned by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose leaders adopted Tuesday a landmark charter , which among other things calls for setting up a human rights agency.

The report’s mandate was to list out the agency’s powers and duties.

Its recommendations confirm that the human rights agency would be a toothless body with no power to rein in blatant violators such as Myanmar.

The report’s contents reveal the extent of ASEAN’s reluctance to hold any of its members accountable – or to shame them – for outright human rights violations such as the Myanmar junta’s recent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in September that killed at least 15 people.

The international community has condemned the junta for its refusal to restore democracy and release Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years. ASEAN has also been criticized for not doing enough to pressure Myanmar’s military leaders.

The human rights body, to be comprised of representatives from ASEAN countries, should draft a “long-term roadmap” for the promotion of human rights, according to the report prepared by a task force, led by Singapore.

Such a body should also have “respect for national independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all ASEAN member states,” it said.

The task force recommended that the human rights body should uphold ASEAN’s bedrock policy forbidding member countries from interfering in one another’s domestic affairs – an edict Myanmar has often invoked to parry criticisms.

The report also says the rights body should oppose attempts by foreign countries to interfere in any Southeast Asian country’s human rights problems.

The agency should “be faithful to ASEAN and its common interests and oppose external influence attempting to interfere in the human rights issues of any ASEAN member state,” the task force said.

The body should conduct consultations and a public campaign on rights promotion and consider drafting an ASEAN declaration on human rights, it said.

The establishment of a human rights body had been the most contentious issue in the drafting of the ASEAN Charter because of strong opposition from Myanmar.

A Myanmar diplomat, Thaung Tun, said that his country wants the human rights body to become a “consultative mechanism” and that it should not “shame and blame” any ASEAN nation.

ASEAN’s members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.