Critics slam new ASEAN rights body

July 20, 2009 (DVB), Civil society groups have warned that a Southeast Asian human rights body likely to be endorsed today could actually have a detrimental effect on the region and be powerless to tackle rogue states such as Burma.

Members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc are in preliminary talks today ahead of the main ASEAN security summit to be held later this week in Thailand.

It is expected that the bloc will today ratify the ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB), the region's first ever human rights watchdog.

But critics have said that in its present state, the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the body will render it unable to tackle internal problems in member countries.

The Thailand-based Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development said that unless rectified, the ToR "will greatly inhibit the security of ASEAN’s people as well as the credibility of the regional body".

According to a draft of the ToR seen by AFP, the new body will not be able to punish those who violate human rights, but can only force member states to provide a report on its internal rights situation.

Furthermore, the charter of the AHRB has an overwhelming focus on promotion of human rights, rather than any attempt at protection of victims, critics say.

"The serious lack in terms of [tackling] human rights abuses is the function of protection, said Rafendi Djamin, convenor of Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights.

Out 14 clauses in the proposal, he said, "maybe eight or 10 are concerned with promotion [rather than protection]," he said.

This would appear to be a continuation of ASEAN's much criticized policy of non-interference in domestic affairs of member countries.

Burma has used this policy in the past to defend itself against allegations of state-sanctioned human rights abuses.

Notably, when Thailand in May criticised the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi and warned that Burma's credibility was "at stake", Burma accused Thailand of "meddling" and not conforming with ASEAN practice.

The 27-member ASEAN regional forum will begin later this week on the Thai island of Phuket, with senior officials from China, the EU and the US, including Hillary Clinton, in attendance.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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