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World News

U.N rights chief "disappointed" on new ASEAN body

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay voiced regret on Wednesday that a new Southeast Asian rights commission had no clear mandate to protect victims of abuses in the region.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay addresses a news conference in Geneva April 20, 2009. Pillay voiced regret on Wednesday that a new Southeast Asian rights commission had no clear mandate to protect victims of abuses in the region. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/Files

While welcoming the creation of the body by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), she said its members should be “independent and impartial” and be chosen from among real rights experts in consultation with all sections of society.

A statement from Pillay’s Geneva office said she “expressed her disappointment at the Commission’s lack of a clear protection mandate”, adding that she hoped its role would expand once it was formally launched in October.

Her remarks echoed concerns expressed by non-governmental regional rights bodies and by London-based Amnesty International over the body, whose creation was agreed at a meeting of ASEAN foreign minister in Phuket, Thailand, on July 20.

Amnesty said the consensus rule under which the 10-nation grouping operates -- and which has prevented it taking a strong stand with members like Myanmar -- could paralyse or weaken the body, the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

ASEAN ministers on Monday acknowledged doubts over the new body -- a draft text of whose mandate stresses that a “constructive and non-confrontational approach” would be taken towards all members, but insisted it would not be toothless.

Pillay, a former high court judge in South Africa, said the setting up of the body was “an important step forward” in protecting and promoting human rights in the ASEAN region, the first of its type in Asia and the Pacific area.

But she said such bodies should help to tackle “shortcomings in national frameworks and complement existing international human rights mechanisms” -- a reference to U.N. agreements including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Two ASEAN countries, Indonesia and Philippines, are currently members of the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council, where they generally line up with a majority group which limits or bars any strong criticism of developing-country members.

Pillay urged ASEAN governments to ensure the Commission worked with civil society organisations, many of whom are strongly critical of the non-interference principle followed by the grouping and want tougher action on rights violations.

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