But local and international rights groups lament its failure to include sufficient provisions to protect and promote human rights
Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Surin Pitsuwan delivers his speech during the ceremony of “Welcoming the Entry into Force of Asean Charter” in Jakarta on Monday.
THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations took a major step towards becoming an EU-style community Monday with the passing into force of a new charter setting benchmarks for democracy.
The charter sets out rules of membership, transforms Asean into a legal entity and envisages a single free trade area by 2015 for the region of 500 million people.
It came into force with a meeting of Asean foreign ministers at the bloc's Jakarta secretariat, 30 days after Thailand became the last member to deposit its ratifying documents.
"This is a momentous development when Asean is consolidating, integrating and transforming itself into a community," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said.
"Southeast Asia is no longer the bitterly divided, war-torn region it was in the 1960s and 1970s."
The charter was supposed to have been activated at a summit in Thailand this month, but that meeting was postponed by the domestic political crisis. Thai Information Minister Mun Patanotai presided over the presentation ceremony as representative of the bloc's current chair, as the country lacks a foreign minister to do the job.
"In spite of the political setback in Thailand, which is now the ... chair country, I believe Asean will not and cannot be slowed down," the bloc's Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters.
The charter will give the bloc, often dismissed as a talking shop, greater clout in international negotiations, but critics argue that some member states will continue to get away with gross human rights abuses.
The bloc's proposed new rights body has no teeth, and the charter has no provision to sanction members such as Myanmar, where the junta has kept democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past 18 years.
"[We] have long been calling for Asean [to] include human rights protection into their charter," said Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho.
"We, human rights NGOs, want to see the Asean Human Rights Body become real and independent within their charter ... but this is not easy for Asean to accept because some of the countries would not approve."
No date has been set for the creation of the planned rights body, but a first draft of its terms of reference will be handed over to a meeting of foreign ministers in Thailand in July, officials said.