Poor rights record hampers ASEAN effort
MANILA (AFP) - Southeast Asian nations have struggled to find common ground on creating a new human rights body, and analysts say one reason is that many have poor rights records themselves.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced Monday it would form a rights body as part of its landmark charter, but the details were left vague and there was fierce disagreement from Myanmar and other member states.
"ASEAN is under a lot of pressure to improve its human rights record. And it knows that human rights has to be mentioned somewhere in its charter," said Basil Fernando of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.
"A charter without it will just be another piece of meaningless paper," he told AFP.
Diplomats had hoped to outline a full-fledged rights commission in the draft of the new ASEAN charter which was presented to the bloc's foreign ministers on Monday.
But opposition from Myanmar as well as from Laos and Vietnam resulted in a watering-down of the language, and ensured that the details were left unresolved -- and up for debate at future rounds of negotiations.
The ruling generals of Myanmar, who are most opposed to an ASEAN rights body according to diplomats, have repeatedly embarrassed the bloc and snubbed calls to restore democracy and free Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The prospect for genuine democracy in Burma (Myanmar) remains gloomy," the Free Burma Coalition said in a statement. "The junta simply flushed all these ASEAN efforts down the drain."
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar acknowledged the difficulties that lie ahead to create a viable rights commission with real enforcement power to stop abuses across the bloc.
"From the start we thought it was going to be a thorny issue," he told a news conference in Manila on the sidelines of the talks.
"The next difficult step is getting it really formed. Let us cross the bridge when we come to it," he said.
Myanmar is far from the only trouble spot, however, and across ASEAN -- from the democracy of the Philippines to autocratic states such as Vietnam and Laos -- almost all have some black marks in their books.
And while a handful of members can boast of having their own human rights commissions, those bodies tend to be toothless tigers with no real powers to bring rights abusers to justice.
In the Philippines, hundreds of activists, human rights workers, lawyers, trade unionists and journalists have been murdered since President Gloria Arroyo came to power in 2001.
Few prosecutions have taken place, and a UN investigation this year delivered a damning indictment of Arroyo's government and the military over the killings.
In Cambodia, perceived as having one of the region's worst records on human rights, opposition politicians and international watchdogs say abuses have worsened as Prime Minister Hun Sen has slowly tightened his grip on power.
"The problem is getting bigger and bigger but there is no effective solution," said Thun Saray, director of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc. "Also, corruption makes it more difficult for people to find justice."
Human rights groups say that in Thailand, where a military coup last year ousted elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at least 2,500 people were killed in 2003 and 2004 during Thaksin's get-tough campaign against drugs.
"One of the most prominent human rights abuses in Thailand is the culture of impunity," said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai consultant for Human Rights Watch.
"It's a legacy from the Thaksin government, in which government officials, particularly security forces and police, violated human rights and walked away from legal and criminal accountability," Sunai said.
Rights experts say one bright spot is Indonesia, where they say abuses have greatly decreased since the downfall of strongman president Suharto in 1998.
"The main remaining human rights abuses are those left over from the past," said Asmara Nababan, executive director of the private Institute for Democracy and Human Rights Studies in that country.
"At present, human rights violations continue to occur, but not on the scale and intensity of the past," he said.
Even if fears that the eventual ASEAN rights body will turn out to be less effective than hoped, some analysts say, just the mention of a plan for one is a significant step.
"ASEAN's human rights record is not good but there are signs that countries within the bloc are pushing hard to clean up their image," Timothy Parritt of rights watchdog Amnesty International told AFP.
"It is a small step and an important step for ASEAN," he said.