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LEGISLATORS CREATE ASEAN CAUCUS TO PROTECT FREE EXPRESSION

Following complaints that the regional economic body the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was not doing enough to protect freedom of expression, a group of ASEAN parliamentarians have banded together to create a caucus to look at just that, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

Last December, a new charter came into force for ASEAN, a key tenet of which was to create a regional body that would protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.

But neither freedom of expression nor press freedom was explicitly mentioned in the charter, nor had it been explained how the body might work in ASEAN's culture of non-interference and decision by consensus, said SEAPA.

So on 28 February, six legislators from ASEAN member countries Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, who were gathered in Thailand for the official ASEAN summit, announced the formation of the ASEAN Legislative Caucus on Rights and Free Expression, with the aim of protecting and promoting democracy, human rights and free expression in the ASEAN community.

"We believe that the dream of a true ASEAN community and the formation of an ASEAN human rights body must recognise free expression, press freedom, and people's access to information as essential to human rights," the parliamentarians said in a statement.

They called on legislators to make the principles embodied in the UN Declaration on Human Rights the "minimum standards" upon which the ASEAN human rights body will be established. They also urged their leaders to uphold the rights of the people of ASEAN, in particular their rights to access information and to "express and participate on matters that affect their lives and societies."

The legislators are now inviting their colleagues in the region to join their movement. But they may face resistance from the usual suspects. At the ASEAN summit, the Burmese regime "undermined any possibility for agreement on (the) charter, vetoed the attendance of human rights campaigners and blocked dialogue with civil society," said ARTICLE 19.

According to ARTICLE 19, the current draft proposal for the human rights body leaked to The Associated Press over the weekend lacks powers to investigate or prosecute rights abusers and is complete with provisions that reject external interference.

For more on the caucus, see: http://tinyurl.com/agvmqp

Also visit these links:
- SEAPA year-end report: http://tinyurl.com/cr6s3o
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/c97hvm
- Human Rights Watch, "ASEAN: Make Human Rights a Regional Concern": http://tinyurl.com/b6nnwt
(4 March 2009)

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