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ASEAN readies rights body

DELEGATES to the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phuket are expected to approve the terms of reference for a long-awaited regional rights body, paving the way for its formal establishment at ASEAN's annual summit in October, officials said Sunday.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB) would be addressed before the end of the summit on Thursday, but he could not confirm Chinese state media reports that the body would be approved today.

"There will be a lot of issues discussed in the meeting, and the terms of reference for setting up an ASEAN Human Rights Body will also be one of those issues," he said.

"An official representing [Cambodia's] Human Rights Committee is participating in [the meeting]."

A draft proposal for the AHRB was adopted by the foreign ministers of the bloc's 10 member states during its annual summit in Thailand in early March, in line with the ASEAN Charter adopted in November 2007.

At the time, local rights groups said the body as constituted would "not operate effectively" due to the presence of government-appointed officials on the commission.

It also said the body would be "purely consultative" if it was not given a mandate to conduct fact-finding missions, publish findings and enforce its rulings.

Although under ASEAN Charter rules, member states pledge to "promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms", the goal appears to conflict at times with some core principles, including consensus decision-making and "non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States".

Thun Saray, president of the local human rights group Adhoc, said the most important thing was for the body to have a mandate to protect - not just promote - human rights.

"We see political will from some governments in ASEAN, but there are some problems of the consensus principle in the working process of the ASEAN members. They have to compromise a lot," he said Sunday.

The new AHRB terms of reference have not been made public, Thun Saray said, though he added that he had heard of positive changes in the document.

He said "some ASEAN countries" had agreed to appoint independent experts to sit on the body rather than government appointees, which could improve its effectiveness.

"If we have independent experts on human rights in this body, perhaps it could make some difference," he said.

Sara Colm, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said the group was keen to see more "direct confrontation" of ASEAN members over human rights issues, particularly in the case of Myanmar. She described the AHRB as a "positive step".

"Having any sort of mechanism can be helpful [as] an advocacy tool, as a way to push [governments]," she said.

"If states aren't pushed, they don't really have to abide by the charter."

Om Yentieng, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said from Phuket that he was too busy to comment Sunday.



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