12 Dec 2005

ASEAN moves toward charter, human rights on agenda

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Southeast Asia's regional grouping agreed on Monday to draft its first constitution, a document that could enshrine human rights and democracy in a region where both have come under critical scrutiny.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), including military-ruled Myanmar and communist Vietnam, agreed an Eminent Persons Group including former regional leaders should decide the final shape of a charter.

The declaration they signed made no mention of human rights or democracy, but there are moves within ASEAN to write these into a document which could be signed in 2007.

"We have not touched on anything just now, except to have an administrative meeting," former Malaysian deputy premier Musa Hitam, the Eminent Persons Group's chairman, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. "We identified our work programme, that's all."

A charter could also create provisions for suspension or even exclusion of member states which breached the constitution.

The lack of such a mechanism is often raised in public debate on how ASEAN should deal with its most awkward member, Myanmar.

Myanmar has caused unease within the grouping since it joined in 1997. The United States calls Myanmar an "outpost of tyranny" and both Washington and the European Union have imposed sanctions on the former Burma.

In 2003, Myanmar announced a "roadmap to democracy," a move some ASEAN diplomats felt vindicated the group's policy of constructive engagement.

But critics say the roadmap is a sham and point to the continued detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory in 1990, only to be denied power by the army.

"FIRST STEP"

"It's going to be important because it's a first step toward a creation of the charter," Indonesian spokesman Dino Patti Djalal told reporters. "Obviously what is needed is the hard work that will be done by the eminent persons," he said.

"These are the people who will draft the charter with the hope that it will be finalised. That, we hope, will be something that will strengthen ASEAN as one community, one vision and one identity."

Malaysian political scientist P. Ramasamy said ASEAN as a whole needed to do more on democracy. "There is only a difference in degree between Myanmar and other ASEAN countries in terms of the system," he said in the run-up to this week's ASEAN talks.

"Myanmar is the worst-case scenario, military junta. But in Malaysia, Indonesia and others, the mere presence of elections does not qualify these countries to be democratic in content."

A separate summit of ASEAN non-government groups said the charter should embody "universal values" of regional religions and cultures and ASEAN should set up a human rights commission.

It also called on ASEAN to strengthen its grouping of lawmakers, the ASEAN Parliamentary Caucus, and transform it eventually into a regional parliament.

But ASEAN leaders do not want to move toward a politically integrated European Union-style community, unwilling to yield on issues of sovereignty in a region where overlapping sea claims have led to gunboat diplomacy in recent years.

However, some leaders feel a charter is needed to help speed economic integration, a goal frustrated at times by an informal structure which, in the words of the ASEAN secretary-general, allows leaders to sign an agreement and then "come back from dinner and say you want to change."

ABC News: ASEAN moves toward charter, human rights on agenda


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