Subject: Activists call new SE Asia rights body toothless [+Op-Ed; Q+A: East Asia Summit]

also: Op-Ed: Challenges of the ASEAN rights commission; Q+A-What is the East Asia Summit all about?

Activists call new SE Asia rights body toothless

By GRANT PECK Associated Press Writer

CHA-AM, Thailand, Oct 23 (AP) - Southeast Asian nations inaugurated their first regional human rights commission Friday, a watchdog immediately derided as toothless by activists who walked out of a meeting to protest being snubbed by five of the governments involved.

The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations earlier began inauspiciously when half the bloc's 10 leaders failed to show up at the opening of the three-day conference due to a tropical storm, domestic politics, a VIP visit and a possible illness.

One of the first orders of business was the inauguration of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Critics say the commission will do little to deter human rights violators because it focuses on promotion -- rather than protection -- of human rights and has no authority to impose punishments.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva defended the commission a "a significant milestone" -- it is the first human rights watchdog in ASEAN's 42-year history.

"The issue of human rights is not about condemnation, but about awareness," Abhisit said, adding that improving human rights is an "evolutionary process."

Activists, however, condemned both the commission's powerlessness and the exclusion of members of civil society from Thursday's summit.

"It is a big shame to our dreams for genuine democracy in the region. It's like all of the human rights of the people in this region have been violated," said Sister Crescenia L. Lucero, a leading rights advocate and Roman Catholic nun.

Lucero was to have represented the Philippines at the dialogue. But she and other civil society representatives were excluded from Thursday's meeting, according to Debbie Stothard of The ASEAN People's Forum, an umbrella group of non-governmental organizations.

Stothard said the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and the Philippines rejected meeting with the activists as previously scheduled. Instead, she said, Singapore and Myanmar flew in substitutes from government-sponsored agencies, with Myanmar including a former high-ranking police officer.

In response, activists from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia walked out of the meeting in protest.

The exclusion of activists from the summit -- held under the motto of "Empowering the Peoples" -- also drew fire from a leading international human rights group.

"This confirms our worst fears, because an intergovernmental body has always been second best, but an intergovernmental body that won't even talk to its own citizens is a joke, is worthless," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

ASEAN's 10 member countries include military-run Myanmar, communist-run Laos and Vietnam plus several countries whose governments routinely persecute opposition parties or political activists.

Members of ASEAN have recently escalated their criticism of Myanmar, particularly over the detention of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But the summit will again likely act by consensus, avoid confrontations and maintain that the group's approach to engaging Myanmar works better than the West's sanctions and threats.

The summit will also sign a declaration on climate change and discuss food security, bio-energy, disaster management and how trade barriers can be brought down to bring about a European Union-style grouping by 2015.

The bloc will also meet with leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The opening of the summit came with only half of the region's leaders in attendance.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was busy hosting an official visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Indonesia is swearing in a new government and Malaysia's government was presenting its budget to Parliament, said Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was running late due to Typhoon Lupit, the third storm in a month due to hit the Philippines, her spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said.

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah was in Cha-am but didn't show up at the opening ceremony amid reports that he was not feeling well.

Thailand has deployed more than 36,000 military and police to keep security both in Bangkok and at the beach resort of Cha-am, 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital.

The government is still smarting from the storming of the East Asian Summit in April in the coastal city of Pattaya, where anti-government protesters charged through thin police ranks and forced the evacuation of several leaders by helicopter and boat.

A main protest organizer said no new demonstrations are planned this week in Bangkok or at the summit venue.

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The Jakarta Post Saturday, October 24, 2009

Challenges of the ASEAN rights commission

Haris Azhar, Jakarta

ASEAN foreign ministers approved the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR) in July and are expected to inaugurate the Commission on Thursday during the ASEAN summit in Thailand.

The acceptance of the AICHR gives two indicators of the current global human rights trend.

First, it gives ASEAN an opportunity, as a regional organization, to promote and protect human rights in Southeast Asia.

Second, the implementation or enforcement of human rights legislation in each ASEAN member country can be monitored because AICHR is an interstate organization.

Nevertheless, there are some handicaps because, since the establishment of ASEAN 42 years ago, human rights have never become a big enough concern to be enforced by the ASEAN institution.

ASEAN is always very reluctant to interfere in members' sovereignty. ASEAN never questioned the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s; the Indonesia Military's long occupation of East Timor; the violation of the right to liberty in Malaysia and Singapore; and martial law in the Philippines and other areas in Indonesia and Thailand in the past. The regional grouping is also powerless against the Myanmar's brutal regime.

The poor responses from ASEAN were caused by the political practices among the member states that run throughout the organization: the *ASEAN way'. The ASEAN way is cooperation that is loose and informal, relying on political persuasion rather than legal enforcement and basing itself on consultation and consensus.

This ASEAN way has been criticized as *rhetoric and hyperbole that ASEAN officials indulge in defensively to deflect attention from the grouping's shortcomings in ensuring more substantive cooperation'.

It can be seen as a conflict avoidance system relying on informal, friendly negotiation in structurally loose settings as opposed to adversarial models in legally grounded institutions.

Momentously, the Commission was established at a time when ASEAN states were basically not interested in human rights and preferred to look upon human rights as a threat to their political interests. So the Commission lacks a protection mandate. It has only a promotional mandate, such as to develop strategies for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, to enhance public awareness of human rights among the peoples of ASEAN.

The Commission has no power to conduct investigations into particular member states. Furthermore, the decision-making in the AICHR shall be based on consultation and consensus, which is in accordance with Article 20 of the ASEAN Charter. The principles that have often been used by ASEAN state leaders to challenge the universality of human rights by upholding the sovereignty of non-interference (the ASEAN way).

Then how will the Commission's promotional mandate face the ASEAN way or the politics of sovereignty?

There will be a few problems for the future operation of the AICHR.

First, the politics of sovereignty have been exercised for a long time in ASEAN states. At some point, this exercise has caused widespread human rights violations. And unfortunately, there are no adequate and accountable remedies to those violations. Further, human rights violations are still happening, as is clearly seen in Burma. The Commission will not able to handle a situation such as this because it has no mandate to conduct investigations.

Second, ASEAN foreign ministers fully control the Commission. Therefore, ASEAN might block efforts and steps forward by the Commission if they are not appropriate to ASEAN's politics.

Thus, the AICHR is only able to be a part of national human rights improvements in ASEAN states. To this end, the Commission must make an assessment of the human rights situation in Southeast Asia states. The result of this assessment can be used to formulate a priority program for building cooperation with national human rights institutions, policy makers and civil society in the member states.

However, to reach this situation, ASEAN governments have to keep the human rights discourse open and allow the involvement of the Commission.

It might also seek to build cooperation with international institutions, such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other regional human rights mechanisms. This could help solve serious human rights problems, such as those in Burma.

The writer is deputy coordinator of Kontras (Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence).

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Q+A-What is the East Asia Summit all about?

By John Ruwitch

HUA HIN, Thailand, Oct 24 (Reuters) - The East Asia Summit, bringing together the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six dialogue partners, will be held in the Thai seaside resort of Hua Hin on Sunday.

Here are some key questions and answers about the meeting.

WHAT IS THE EAST ASIA SUMMIT?

It came into being in 2005 as an annual meeting among leaders of 16 Asian nations, including the 10 ASEAN countries -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- and their dialogue partners China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

It mainly discusses trade and economic issues, although security, human rights and geopolitical issues often feature in discussions on the sidelines.

WHY ARE INDIA, AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND INVOLVED?

This summit was originally the brainchild of former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, who wanted to create an East Asia Economic Caucus among the "Asian Tiger" economies. (Some pundits called it the caucus without the Caucasians). The United States through Japan lobbied hard to first bring Australia and New Zealand into the group and later India, which shares security and trade concerns with the summit participants.

WHAT HAS BEEN ACHIEVED AT PAST SUMMITS?

The summit has been searching for an existential purpose since the 2005 inaugural meeting in Kuala Lumpur. The next summit in Cebu, Philippines sketched out a vision of an East Asia free trade area, and signed a declaration on energy security. The third one, in Singapore in November 2007, came out with a declaration on climate change and energy.

The current summit was initially scheduled for December last year but was postponed when anti-government protestors shut down Bangkok's airports. It was moved to Pattaya in April but was subsequently aborted when a rival protest group broke through police and army lines and stormed the summit venue.

Next year it will be in Vietnam, which takes over as chairman of ASEAN.

SO WHAT WILL BE TALKED ABOUT THIS TIME?

In Hua Hin, trade ties, regional security, disaster relief and human rights are among the issues up for discussion. The leaders will also discuss a coordinated stand for the conference on climate change in Copenhagen later this year.

Some of the more interesting stuff takes place on the sidelines.

The first summit was largely spoiled by spats between Japan and its neighbours over then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the controversial Yakusini war shrine.

The leaders of Thailand and Cambodia will no doubt exchange words after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Friday he would hire exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic advisor. A Thai court last year found Thaksin guilty of corruption and sentenced the fugitive leader to two years in jail.

Myanmar's poor human rights record is usually a talking point in the corridors, although it rarely figures in the discussion among leaders. Myanmar successfully blocked any discussion of its internal affairs at the last summit in Singapore.

Recent tensions in the China-India relationship will also likely come up, including over the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit to a disputed border area.

Australia could raise with China the case of an Australian company executive arrested in China on charges of corporate espionage, an issue which has stoked concern in China's foreign investment community.

The three North Asian countries may discuss how to restart stalled nuclear talks with North Korea.

WHAT IS THE "CHIANG MAI INITIATIVE?

It is a pool of foreign currency reserves among the ASEAN+3 countries worth $120 billion. It is aimed at providing emergency balance of payments support through currency swap arrangements, should one of the members experience the kind of capital flight that marked the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98.

Like many of ASEAN's initiatives, it is more viable on paper than in practice. The requirement that a country must be in an IMF programme, or in talks for one, is likely to deter most would-be recipients -- including Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, which have bitter memories of their IMF bailouts of a decade ago.

There has been some brainstorming around the idea that the Chiang Mai Initiative could eventually lead to an Asian Monetary Unit, similar to the old European Currency Unit that eventually led to the creation of the euro.

WHY MEET IN HUA HIN?

The summit is being held in the resort town of Hua Hin, a two-hour drive south of Bangkok where more than 18,000 police and members of the armed forces, empowered by a tough Internal Security Act, have set up a no-go zone around the town to avoid a repeat of the Pattaya fiasco. (Additional reporting by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Jason Szep and Jeremy Laurence)


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