| By Daniel Schearf, Bangkok |
19 February 2009
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is coming under increasing pressure to improve human rights in the region.
Rights groups have applauded ASEAN's forming a human rights body, but say so far it appears largely toothless and not willing to take on human rights violators like Burma's military rulers.
Yap Swee Seng is with Forum Asia, a coalition of 42 human rights organizations across Asia. He told journalists Thursday ASEAN's human rights body needs to make independent assessments of human rights concerns and have the power to act against violators.
"If the body doesn't have this kind of mandate, especially on the protection mandate…it will be very questionable whether this human rights body can function as expected by civil society to effectively promote and protect human rights," said Seng.
Seng was speaking on a panel of activists ahead of several gatherings in Thailand of grassroots and regional organizations.
The rights groups will meet next week in Bangkok and Hua Hin, a resort town where ASEAN will hold its annual summit.
One of the hot issues this year is how to handle Burmese boat people, who have been fleeing Burma by the hundreds and washing up in neighboring countries.
Seng says ASEAN states need to address the source of Burmese refugees, if they want stability and security in the region.
"ASEAN states have to come to term with the reality that they have to address the root causes of this problem, this humanitarian crisis where democracy and human rights in Burma will have to be restored," he said.
One of ASEAN's fundamental principles is non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.
Seng says ASEAN may use that as an excuse to avoid condemning human rights abusers or demanding improvement.
The activist meetings in Thailand begin as a United Nations' human rights envoy ends a six-day trip to Burma.
Tomas Ojea Quintana was in Burma to see if the military government implemented his suggestions to improve the country's poor human rights record.
During his trip, Quintana was able to meet with some political prisoners. He gave no immediate assessment of human rights conditions in the country.