BANGKOK — When ASEAN agreed in 1993 to consider creating a regional human-rights monitoring body, some member countries that weren’t really enthusiastic about the idea probably thought they were safe. At the time, there seemed no way it could ever happen. For ASEAN, human rights was so sensitive that it was rarely discussed publicly, and one of ASEAN’s cardinal principles was that members must not meddle in the “internal affairs” of other members.

Major obstacles remain, and a human-rights body won’t be formed any time soon by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But the effort has been making headway as the ASEAN agenda opens up, and officials interviewed at last week’s annual ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Bangkok said the question is not whether the body will be formed but when.

“Probably it will take a few years, but I think it’s inevitably coming,” said Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose country joined the meeting as a regular “dialogue partner” of ASEAN. “In the time that I’ve been foreign minister, 4 1/4 years, it’s extraordinary how human-rights issues have worked their way up the agenda of ASEAN countries. . . . Even Myanmar is talking about establishing an independent human-rights commission.”

After meeting in Singapore in 1993, ASEAN foreign ministers issued a joint statement that “stressed the importance of strengthening international cooperation on all aspects of human rights” and “agreed that ASEAN should also consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights.” The ministers were under some pressure when they wrote those words. The previous month, the World Conference on Human Rights, which all ASEAN members attended in Vienna, urged all regions to set up human-rights bodies.

Such bodies exist in the Americas, Europe and Africa, but not Asia. The effort to establish an ASEAN body has been made more difficult by ASEAN’s expansion since 1995 to include Communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos as well as military-ruled Myanmar, one of the world’s worst violators of human rights.

On the other hand, in recent years, Thailand and the Philippines have pushed for ASEAN to be more open and more active in resolving social, environmental and civil problems. At ASEAN forums, concepts of “universal rights” as enshrined in United Nations declarations and international treaties compete more strongly than before with the “Asian values” notion that the rights of state and society outweigh those of the individual. ASEAN Vision 2020, adopted in 1997, sees ASEAN’s future as “a community of caring societies.” The Hanoi Plan of Action, adopted in 1998 to carry out this vision, called for increased cooperation to combat the trafficking in, and violence against, women and children, and to exchange information on human rights to promote and protect those rights in accordance with international treaties.

And while it does not publicly admit it, in recent years ASEAN has been softening its principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of member states. For example, knowing that international isolation of Myanmar was hurting ASEAN as a whole, some ASEAN members have been quietly pressing Myanmar to improve its human-rights record and open talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1997, after a bloody coup in Cambodia, ASEAN told strongman Hun Sen that he must restore elected rule if the country wished to join ASEAN.

Optimism prevails among the human-rights advocates in government institutions and civil-society groups in several ASEAN countries who have formed a regional “working group” to lobby for an ASEAN human-rights body.

ASEAN ministers met with the working group for the first time in 1996. In 1997, ASEAN dropped its insistence that national human-rights commissions be formed in each ASEAN country before a regional body could be formed. (That removed a major barrier: Even today, the only ASEAN members with national commissions are the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, while Thailand is setting one up.) The working group’s meeting with ASEAN officials in 1999 had a new flavor, said Carlos P. Medina, Jr., a Filipino academic who is the working group’s secretary general. “Before, it was not a dialogue,” he said in an interview last week. “We just made a presentation and they noted it. In 1999 it was a genuine exchange of ideas.”

Last week in Bangkok, the working group gave ASEAN officials a draft agreement on establishing a permanent ASEAN Human Rights Commission. The document envisions a commission that would represent all contracting states but act independently to promote and protect human rights. The commission would accept complaints of violations from individuals, groups and contracting states, and recommend to the governments measures to resolve those complaints. It would also investigate alleged violations on its own initiative.

Questioned by reporters, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Aung Win claimed his country did not oppose the creation of an ASEAN human-rights body. But he repeated his government’s arguments that the granting of political rights depended “on stages of evolution, on the political situation,” and that the government must take action when political parties break the law — a reference to Suu Kyi’s prodemocracy party. In an interview, a senior Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official also did not openly oppose the idea, but added that, “You know, human rights is a very sensitive issue in Vietnam.”

The working group said one way around the lack of consensus may be to have some ASEAN members form the commission among themselves first and then invite other ASEAN members to join when they are ready.

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