ASEAN summit hits snag on new rights panel

By Tim Johnston and Kevin Brown
Saturday, October 24, 2009

HUA HIN, THAILAND -- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were supposed to celebrate the inauguration of the group's new human rights body as they met Friday, but rifts over human rights, trade and politics marred the first day of the region's annual summit.

Five member states -- Burma, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore -- refused to meet the five individuals chosen by civil rights groups to represent their countries.

"I am very disappointed, and I see this as not only a rejection of me personally and the organization I represent, but as a rejection of the democratic process in the region," said Sister Crescencia Lucero, the Franciscan nun who was to have been the Philippines representative.

The association's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, one of the central elements of the legally binding ASEAN Charter signed last year, disappointed many rights advocates when it was limited to the promotion rather than the protection of human rights.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister and current ASEAN chairman, tried to put a positive gloss on the dispute.

"For members of civil society, you should be assured that you now have a partner with which to work," he said.

Nongovernmental groups have portrayed the disagreement as a struggle for the soul of ASEAN: Is it, as Vejjajiva described in his opening statement, a "people-centered" community or, as its critics allege, an uncritical club for regional governments, some of which, such as Burma and Cambodia, are regularly accused of human rights abuses?

ASEAN is caught between its drive for greater integration and international relevance, and the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other member states, but bilateral relations are a recurrent problem.

Regional politicians sometimes cite the European Union as their model, but their ambitions risk running aground on the vast political and social differences between the states, which range from the absolute monarchy of Brunei to the communist governments of Vietnam and Laos.

-- Financial Times

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