ASEAN steps to creating human rights watchdog

Southeast Asian countries are taking very tentative steps toward setting up a regional human rights watchdog, officials said Friday, suggesting progress is slow because of bureaucracy and national sensitivities. The idea of a watchdog has been proposed by the national human rights institutions of Malaysia , Thailand , the Philippines and Indonesia , but does not have the formal backing of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

ASEAN has shown willingness to tackle the problem by tentatively agreeing in 2004 to set up a commission to protect the rights of women and children, human rights officials from the four countries said after a three-day meeting. "We see the beginning ... baby steps," Malaysian Human Rights Commissioner Ranita Hussein told reporters.

The four countries hope their discussions will act as a launch pad for the eventual establishment of a human rights mechanism in ASEAN, a diverse grouping including nations practicing varying degrees of democracy, communist governments and a military dictatorship. Ranita said the four countries' human rights bodies also discussed the possibility of cooperating in areas such as guarding the rights of migrant workers, human trafficking, economic, social and cultural rights and fighting terrorism.

"There has been no great leap as yet. It's definitely quite slow," said Sriprapha Petcharamesree, an official of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. "You know how ASEAN works." The organization is notoriously bureaucratic and member states tend to be reluctant to interfere in each other's internal affairs.

"But I think with the (cooperation) of the national human rights commissions and civil society, I know we will be able to push the ASEAN governments," Sriprapha said. Sriprapha said a regional watchdog would help promote and protect rights, especially in countries where no rights bodies exist, "for example in the case of Myanmar ."

The representatives of the four countries said they would encourage rather than pressure governments to establish independent domestic human rights watchdogs. The 10 countries in ASEAN are Brunei , Cambodia , Indonesia , Laos , Malaysia , Myanmar , Thailand , the Philippines , Singapore and Vietnam , reports the AP.


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