The Association of Southeast Asian Nations moved to forge an EU-style community Monday, signing a charter that makes the bloc a legal entity for the first time and could pave the way for creating a single market within seven years.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the new charter, which was ratified by foreign ministers, accords a legal identity to the regional grouping for international negotiations and transactions. Though largely without enforcement action, it also sets out a common set of rules for trade, investment, environment and other fields.
Up until now, the 10-nation organization has been little more than a talk shop, forging agreements through consensus and steering away from confrontation.
One of the key goals of the charter, initially drafted one year ago, is to establish a single market by 2015 for the vast and diverse region of 500 million people, though the deepening global financial crisis and political instability in several member sttes could derail those plans. ASEAN already has been developing a free-trade zone since the 1990s, but progress has been spotty.
The charter also calls for the continued observance of a decade-old treaty banning nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia and prohibits "all other weapons of mass destruction."
The most controversial part of the charter is a proposed human rights body, details of which will be hammered out for approval at an ASEAN summit in Thailand, now scheduled to take place in February.
But the body will not have the ability to impose sanctions or expel countries that violate the rights of thir own citizens, limiting its effectiveness, critics say.
What happens to those who defy "the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy" or to those who fail to "promote or protect human rights?" asked Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an analyst on ASEAN issues from Indonesia's Science Institute.
"The document falls short of what is needed."
The regional bloc has long drawn criticism for failing to take action against abuses in military-ruled Myanmar, which strongly opposed giving the human rights body power even to monitor or investigate violations.
ASEAN was founded during the Cold War asan anti-communist political coalition, later evolving into a trade bloc. It consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.