Myanmar withdraws objections to SE Asia rights body

MANILA (Reuters) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers agreed in principle on Monday to set up a human rights body after military-ruled Myanmar dropped objections to the plan, but diplomats said key differences remained.

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The issue had created a rift within the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and threatened to divert attention from the group’s efforts at economic integration.

“We have agreed to create the human rights body,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo told reporters after the first session of an ASEAN ministerial meeting in the Philippine capital. “At the ministers’ level we have a consensus. Myanmar had a positive attitude towards all of this.”

He said the ministers had yet to decide on terms of reference and other specifics, but would do so soon.

One diplomat privy to the discussions said Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei -- the six older members of ASEAN -- persuaded Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to accept the deal in principle.

Myanmar had opposed the idea, while the three Indochina nations had asked for more time, the diplomat said. But the differences were essentially swept under the carpet.

“There is no time-frame, there is no agreement on form and substance,” the diplomat said. “And everything has to be agreed to by the leaders.”

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Setting up a human rights institution is an integral part of a landmark charter that ASEAN is trying to complete before a summit of the region’s presidents and prime ministers in November.

Yeo also said the leaders would decide on differences over whether ASEAN should abandon its time-honored way of resolving issues by consensus or put them to a vote. They would also take a decision on how to penalize members who violate the charter.

Earlier on Monday, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called for unity in the region and a focus on ASEAN’s goal of economic integration by 2015.

“An ASEAN community is going to be anchored first and foremost on economic integration, with a focus on social justice and raising the standard of living in the region,” she said while opening the ministerial meeting.

“It is about creating a dynamic force in Asia to maximize the benefit of globalization. Too much has been made of our diversity as a barrier. Our diversity is a strength and not a barrier to an East Asian union.”

Analysts however say the idea of an ASEAN human rights code will be difficult to achieve given the differing interpretations of the term within the group and stricter anti-terrorism laws across the region.

“The best that ASEAN can achieve in its landmark charter is a best-efforts pledge to work for adherence to human rights,” said columnist Ana Marie Pamintuan in the Philippine Star newspaper.

“The charter provision will have to be vaguely worded or several laws used to fight terrorism could be considered violations.”