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SE Asia begins negotiations to set up rights body

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has begun negotiations for the creation of a human rights body, a senior Philippine official said on Monday, with hopes of concluding talks in Bangkok next July.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers attend the release of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment report during the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Singapore July 21, 2008. The recovery from the tropical cyclone that tore into Myanmar's Irawaddy Delta in May, killing at least 84,000 people, will cost more than $1 billion over the next 3 years, a report by the U.N. and ASEAN has concluded. The ministers are (L-R) Cambodia's Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Rais Yatim, Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirajuda, Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem, Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win, Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Sahas Bunditkul, Brunei's Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Laos' Foreign Affairs Minister Tongloun Sisoulith, Philippines' Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo and ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

Rosario Manalo, Manila’s representative on a high-level panel drafting the framework, said they expected to show ASEAN foreign ministers a draft of the terms of reference of the rights body by December 2008.

“I am very positive we can finish our job by the time ASEAN foreign ministers meet next July in Bangkok,” Manalo told reporters, adding that more member states had recently expressed willingness to set up an independent body with broader powers.

Last year, Southeast Asian leaders agreed in Singapore to set up a rules-based organization. Among key institutions they agreed to establish was a human rights body.

In a communique, ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Singapore on Monday “reaffirmed the commitment by all member countries to ratify the ASEAN Charter by the 14th ASEAN summit in Bangkok” in December.

Only Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have yet to approve the charter after Myanmar formally informed the bloc of its ratification this week.

Manalo said some member states which had been initially reluctant to form even a local human rights body had become supportive after the 10-member task force met the ASEAN foreign ministers on Monday.

“The minister of Laos was supportive of the human rights body and was doing more positive things,” said Manalo, a former diplomat.

“The minister of Vietnam was very conciliatory and very positive. He said we can find common grounds to agree and only one or two states were holding on to their positions to keep the status quo.”

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DIVIDED BLOC

The Philippines has urged the bloc to work on the universal standard of human rights as adopted by the United Nations because all 10 members were signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand wanted a strong, independent body that would not only protect and promote human rights, but also compel members to make periodic reports on progress, an official said.

Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam wanted only an advisory or consultative body, while Singapore and Brunei preferred to define human rights in the context of ASEAN.

“In short, these countries wanted a watered-down human rights body, where state interests prevail over the rights of individuals,” the official said.

The task force was beginning its work on Monday and hoped to conclude negotiations by the next ASEAN ministerial meeting in Bangkok in a year’s time, he said.

Manalo said some initially reluctant states had become more positive, believing that ASEAN must create a rights body that was “more realistic and credible -- not just to the people of the region, but for the rest of the world”.

Last month, Singapore’s Tommy Koh, head of the task force drafting an ASEAN charter calling for protection of human rights, said there was no consensus on the body having the power to monitor or investigate rights situation in the 10 member states.

“We do not want the ASEAN human rights body to be accusatory, a finger-pointing body,” said Koh.

ASEAN, a bloc encompassing half a billion people, groups Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Roger Crabb

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