Human Rights Groups Give Cautious Backing to New ASEAN Rights Commission 

Rights groups have given cautious backing to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' new human rights commission, civic groups hope to take a greater role in the wider human rights debate across the region.

Rights groups say Southeast Asia has entered a new era in promoting human rights after the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations endorsed a new rights commission.

Rafendi Djamin is the coordinator for Indonesia's Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy.

"There is a point of no return for ASEAN. The charter is already there, adopted ratified and charter's deep roots principles of human roots. Any member state of that charter cannot run away from this obligation. They will have to deal with this - they will have to talk about this among themselves, so this is the basis of the optimism that I have."

The ASEAN foreign ministers endorsed the plan Monday at their meeting in Phuket, Thailand.

However, some activists are disappointed by Burma's efforts to water down the human rights commission. The commission will have no power to protect human rights or punish states that abuse rights. Its mission now simply is to promote the idea of human rights.

Sinapan Samdorai, from the Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers in Singapore, says Burma resisted any requirements that states protect human rights. But Samdorai says the commission will eventually take a more protective role.

"I think, as they say, it's an evolutionary process, it will take at least five years before anything gets done in terms of protection at this stage. I think there is a possibility it will evolve and they promised an evolutionary process."

Several ASEAN governments have openly criticized Burma's lack of progress in human rights and political reform. The military government holds more than two thousand political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Rights groups also welcomed the wider role for civic groups in the rights debate. Under the commission, labor unions also will have a role in promoting rights for workers and migrants.

Yuyun Wahyuningrum, East Asia program manager for the rights group Forum Asia, says society needs to ensure the highest standards are met in the commission's terms of reference.

Ministers and officials Tuesday are discussing the final terms of reference for establishing the rights commission. Final agreement is due to take place at the next ASEAN leaders' summit in October.