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ASEAN ministers debate human rights body Alleviation in Asiaโ€

HUA HIN, Thailand: Southeast Asian ministers on Friday discussed the details of a long-awaited human rights body that critics already fear may be powerless to stop abuses in countries such as Myanmar.

Foreign ministers were debating the terms of reference, makeup and scope of the panel, agreed under the charter of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed in December.

But sources said the current proposals would likely not only stick to ASEAN's policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations, but also fail to give the body any investigative powers.

Officials have said they want the body to be operational before the end of the year although leaders gathering for their three-day annual summit in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin were not expected to reach any concrete agreement.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said discussions would continue through the weekend and include consultations with human rights groups.

"We have to find a balance. It has to have credibility, but it also has to be implementable given the diversity of our region," Abhisit said of the proposed body, adding that the current draft outline for the group would likely change.

"There will be consultations, there will be revisions," he told reporters.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi admitted that finding common ground on the body would prove challenging.

"It is going to be difficult. I want to admit this right at the beginning because we are at different stages of development, " Abdullah said in an interview with the Bangkok Post.

"In this region, we have Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians. So there are certain things that we may find that they are not compatible from cultural perspectives. "

Human rights have been a recurring issue for ASEAN, which includes military-ruled Myanmar and two communist states. The group has repeatedly been pressed to use its influence to improve the rights situation in Myanmar.

Proposals outlining the new body's mandate did not give it the power to investigate abuses, but rather to act in an educational and promotional capacity, sources said.

Yap Swee Seng, executive director of the Bangkok-based Asia Forum told AFP that the body's ability to gather complaints and probe alleged abuses "are very important in order to provide limited protection for human rights victims".

He said the planned body risked being powerless unless it was given an expanded mandate and included independent representatives.

Diplomats said that while some countries wanted to appoint independent experts to the body, others were pushing for it to be made up of government officials.

"That is a concern for us," Yap said. "The body will not be independent if government officials are appointed."

Furthermore, a policy whereby ASEAN member states agree not to interfere in one another's internal affairs would also clip its wings.

"From what we understand.. . principles of non-interference will be enshrined in the terms of reference," Yap said.

"We fear that this would be invoked by some states to prevent the body or to prevent other states talking about human rights violations in that particular country."

International rights watchdogs and the United States on Thursday both urged ASEAN leaders to use the planned body to push for reform in military-ruled Myanmar.

"To be worthy of its name, the body must be empowered to effectively address human rights in Myanmar," Donna Guest, London-based Amnesty's Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement.

The rights groups said the summit must address the rights of refugees and migrants, in particular Myanmar's Rohingya boat people, whom the Thai military is also accused of abusing.

ASEAN has not put the Rohingyas on its agenda for the summit, but the issue was discussed informally both on Thursday and Friday.

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