[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo and other Southeast Asian leaders applaud after the signing ceremony of the ASEAN Charter at the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore yesterday. Photo By AFP]

SINGAPORE, NOVEMBER 21, 2007 (STAR)  By Pia Lee-Brago (via PLDT) – The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders yesterday signed the Charter that will give the regional grouping a legal personality.

“To make ASEAN strong and relevant, we must accelerate and deepen regional integration. The ASEAN charter is a crucial step in this process,” summit host Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

“It will make ASEAN into a more effective and cohesive organization, with a rules-based governing framework, and streamlined decision-making processes. All this will pave the way for closer integration in the years ahead,” he said.

The charter commits ASEAN members “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms” through the creation of a human rights body. The authority that the body will have, however, was not stated.

The charter also requires members to keep the region free of nuclear weapons, ease poverty, protect the environment and work toward an integrated market that allows for free flow of goods, services, investments and professionals.

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for ASEAN Affairs Luis Cruz and Philippine Representative to the High Level Task Force (HLTF) Rosario Manalo said the 10 presidents and heads of government of ASEAN signed the landmark charter that carried the Philippine-initiative creating a human rights body.

“All expressed support for the ASEAN Charter that is a landmark document. It will give legal personality to the ASEAN. It signals a new era for the association,” Cruz said.

The leaders expressed gratitude to the HLTF, chaired by Manalo, for their effective drafting the Charter and completing the work on time.

Cruz said “there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of crafting the terms of reference” for the Charter, especially for the creation of a human rights body.

“What’s important is many of the leaders have asked all members to accelerate the ratification process,” he said.

Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein signed the Charter.

Sein received a strong statement from President Arroyo during the leaders’ working dinner on Monday that the Philippine Senate is not likely to ratify the Charter, in the form of a treaty, if a member is not complying with its provisions.

The ASEAN member was an obvious reference to Myanmar that has repeatedly promised its commitment to institute democratic reforms, but recent developments in the country raised serious doubts on the government’s roadmap to democracy.

Mrs. Arroyo reiterated her advocacy for the principle of centrality of ASEAN with a commonality of position when the regional grouping engages with its Dialogue Partners.

Aside from the Philippines, Myanmar and Singapore, other members of ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

For her part, Manalo said the Philippines earned the prestige in the international community after the Charter was signed and adopted.

“The Philippines stands to gain by being a leader in ASEAN. The Philippines will contribute constructively to ASEAN and as an honorable member of ASEAN,” Manalo said.

On Monday, the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers unanimously approved the draft of the ASEAN Charter without amendment. – With AFP, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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