Foreign ministers of the Association of South-East Asian
Nations (ASEAN) started meeting in Singapore Thursday with the aim of early
ratification of a landmark charter giving the organization a legal framework.
ASEAN's charter, signed by the leaders of its 10 member countries in December, seeks to commit them to promoting human rights and democratic ideals and transforming ASEAN into a legal entity to give it greater influence in the international community.
It requires ratification by all members. Ratification from Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia is still outstanding.
Complete ratification was set for December, but ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said he hoped for full ratification next month.
"ASEAN cannot rest on its laurels," said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. "Delivering on promises must now be key."
"One litmus test will be ratification," Tay said, adding that the charter promised a "more efficient ASEAN."
The foreign ministers were scheduled to meet with a high-level group of experts to address legal issues relating to the charter, including dispute settlement mechanisms, a statement from Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry said.
They are also to meet with another high-level panel that is drafting the framework for a human rights body for ASEAN, whose members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
A review of ongoing efforts to create an EU-style economic community within ASEAN by 2015 and a report by the group overseeing relief work in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis are also on the agenda.
Comprised of representatives from Myanmar, ASEAN and the United Nations, the group was created as a political compromise after international condemnation over the military junta's initial refusal to admit foreign aid workers.
ASEAN managed to persuade Myanmar to open up, more than two weeks after the May cyclone struck, but only to small teams of workers.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has said her country would not ratify the charter if Myanmar refuses to release opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Singapore, which now holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, is hosting back-to-back, top-level meetings through July 24, when the chairmanship passes to Thailand.
After the foreign ministers meet, they are to hold bilateral meetings with other foreign ministers and representatives from ASEAN's dialogue partners Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, South Korea, the European Union, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
"The free trade agreements with China, India, Japan, Korea, the EU, Australia and New Zealand will be discussed," the ministry said with the participants "expected to explore ways to further intensify cooperation."
At the ASEAN Regional Forum, the region's foremost security gathering, North Korea said that on July 24, it would sign the group's non-aggression treaty promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes.
The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation covers ASEAN members and some of the major powers.
ASEAN analysts said the signing reflected Pyongyang's willingness to resolve the international dispute over its nuclear programme amicably, dpa reported.