, JULY 31, 2007 (STAR) By Pia Lee-Brago - Southeast Asian foreign ministers agreed yesterday to set up a regional human rights commission despite strong resistance from the junta-ruled Myanmar and expressions of concern from three member-states with poor human rights records – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, in a statement read to the media, said the creation of a human rights commission would be included in the regional bloc’s draft charter.

“I am pleased to announce that among the issues on which there was agreement among the ASEAN Foreign Ministers is the inclusion of a provision in the ASEAN Charter that mandates the creation of a human rights body,” Romulo said.

When asked about the reaction of the junta-ruled Myanmar, Romulo said that “it is an agreement by all.”

Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam reportedly suggested they were not ready for the immediate establishment of such a body.

Some ASEAN countries fear scrutiny of their human rights record, and the group has traditionally held to a cardinal policy of noninterference in each other’s affairs. Human rights groups complain that this noninterference principle fostered undemocratic governments in the region.

Romulo said the establishment of a human rights commission would give ASEAN “more credibility in the international community.”

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said Myanmar displayed a “positive attitude” toward the creation of a regional rights body.

A diplomat involved in negotiations on the issue said lower-level officials finished a draft of the charter on Sunday with a reference that Myanmar did not accept the commission, leaving it to foreign ministers to resolve the issue.

“We have agreed that there will be a human rights body,” Yeo said after the foreign ministers met for four hours to discuss the draft. “There was a consensus.”

He said he is optimistic that a charter will be signed in Singapore in November.

Singapore will take over the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN from the Philippines on Aug. 2.

The other ASEAN members are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

Yeo said details will be settled later but that the foreign ministers hoped to have everything worked out by the time that ASEAN leaders hold their annual summit in November, when they plan to approve the charter.

“I’m very optimistic,” Yeo said.

Yeo said the foreign ministers made no decision on how to deal with noncompliance with ASEAN rules, leaving that to their presidents and prime ministers.

The leaders also will have to tackle another contentious issue, whether to change ASEAN’s system of making decisions by consensus to a voting process.

Lingering disputes over human rights, and ASEAN’s long tradition of keeping out of each other’s internal affairs, have left key issues unresolved as the regional bloc prepares to approve a charter.

Diplomats said agreement had already been reached on 90 percent of the charter, which will transform ASEAN into a European Union-style grouping with rules and norms to which all 10 nations will have to adhere.

But 11th-hour talks over the past days, often stretching into the wee hours, have failed to iron out bitter divisions that cut to the heart of how the bloc would operate under the new charter.

Member-countries have not agreed yet on a mechanism to punish or sanction those that do not abide by the new rules.

President Arroyo made no direct mention of the disputes in her address, and instead put the focus on the bloc’s plan to create a massive free trade zone and transform the region into a unified economic powerhouse.

“An ASEAN community is clearly going to be anchored first and foremost on economic integration with a focus on social justice and raising the standard of living of the poor in the region,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

“It is about creating a dynamic force in Asia to maximize the benefits of globalization,” she said.

ASEAN faces increased competition from China and India, and threats from militant insurgencies bubbling across the region.

“Our collective desire to bring social justice, economic opportunity and integrated security to the region is our common ground,” Mrs. Arroyo said in her opening address.

“There are no short cuts or quick fixes,” she said. “I commend to you the important task of following through on the commitments that we have made.”

While diplomats hope the new legal entity will give ASEAN greater sway over the international community, the group has also been embarrassed by its failure to exercise influence over member state Myanmar.

The ruling junta has flouted calls to free Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and move swiftly to restore democracy, and foreign ministers used an informal dinner meeting on Sunday to take Myanmar to task.

“I want to say that I was not the only speaker,” Romulo said after the meeting. “There was frustration.”

The bloc has also agreed on a five-year outline to renew its nuclear non-proliferation treaty aimed at keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of rogue states and groups.

The foreign ministers wrap up talks today before a wider regional security meeting later in the week that will bring in the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Australia and others.

Established 40 years ago, ASEAN has never had a formal charter and instead operates by consensus – meaning no votes are taken, so nations cannot be out-voted into accepting what they do not want.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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