Southeast Asian leaders endorsed a controversial human rights pact on Sunday during an annual summit in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in which they also focused on bruising territorial rows and deadly unrest in Myanmar.
The summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which comprises of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei, hailed their declaration on human rights as a landmark agreement that would help protect the region’s 600 million people.
“This certainly can be used to monitor the practice, the protection, the promotion of human rights here in the ASEAN countries,” said ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan.
But critics said it allowed too many loopholes for ASEAN, which groups together a diverse range of political systems, from authoritarian regimes in Laos and Vietnam to freewheeling democracies such as in the Philippines.
“Our worst fears in this process have now come to pass,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
On the day the pact was signed, leaders were having discussions on China claiming virtually the entire South China sea, which spans vital shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in resources.
ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also claim overlapping areas.
Tensions escalated this year amid complaints by the Philippines and Vietnam that China was becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claim to the sea, including by employing bullying diplomatic tactics.
An ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh ended in July without issuing a joint communique for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history because of divisions over how to handle the South China sea issue.
The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted the communique to make specific reference to their disputes with China but were thwarted by Cambodia, the host of the talks and a close Chinese ally.
In one of the major set pieces for Sunday, ASEAN leaders are scheduled to endorse a declaration they say will enshrine human right protections for the bloc’s 600 million people.
However, drafts of the pact have drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups, which say it allows loopholes for governments.
On Sunday the focus was also on the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state between Muslim and Buddhist communities that has left 180 people dead since June.
ASEAN foreign ministers discussed the violence during meetings on Saturday, the same day as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) branded attacks on the minority Rohingya Muslims as a “genocide”.
The talks come ahead of Obama historic visit to Myanmar to reward and further encourage political developments by the new reformist government.
Rights groups have also urged him to raise concerns over the violence in the Rakhine state.
Obama’s aides have already said he will raise “grave concerns” in Phnom Penh over Cambodia’s rights record and the need for political reform when he meets Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“We’ll continue to make clear that we want to see greater political freedom in Cambodia,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security advisor who is travelling with Obama.
ASEAN leaders are also aiming to use the Phnom Penh talks to push forward a planned giant free trade zone with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Negotiations for the free trade area, which would account for roughly half the global population and around a third of the world’s annual gross domestic product, are set to be officially launched on Tuesday.