ASEAN opens up after rights pact secrecy outcry

ASEAN said Sunday it would release "key elements" of a proposed human rights declaration after international rights watchdogs slammed secrecy surrounding the document.

The decision was reached after Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers met with members of the bloc's human rights commission, which is drafting the declaration, a senior diplomat said in Phnom Penh.

ASEAN foreign ministers "decided to release key elements of the draft... to the public as part of the consultations," Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state at the Cambodian foreign ministry, told reporters.

But he said the draft could not be made public in its entirety because it had not been finalised.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups had earlier warned the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers the proposed human rights declaration could fall below global standards if the wider public was left out of the consultations, which had been "mainly conducted behind closed doors".

ASEAN's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights on Sunday submitted the first draft of a declaration that is to serve as a framework for human rights cooperation within the regional bloc.

A second draft is expected in October, which will be reviewed before being submitted for approval by regional leaders at their annual summit in November.

But not all ASEAN member states -- which are due to start regional meetings in Phnom Penh on Monday -- held consultations with civil society groups while others cherry-picked contributors, the rights groups said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told AFP he wanted foreign ministers to "immediately release" a copy of the draft to the public, noting that a leaked earlier version was "quite worrisome".

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said he would welcome more openness.

"I certainly would like to have it as transparent as possible," he told reporters.

ASEAN is comprised of 10 countries with disparate political systems and different levels of economic development, ranging from freewheeling democracies such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to the authoritarian regimes of Vietnam and Laos.

Myanmar was under military rule until recently when it embraced the path to democratic reforms.

Human rights has been a sensitive issue for some members, with the grouping's policy of non-interference in members' internal affairs often preventing the issue from being discussed more thoroughly at annual meetings.

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