The annual meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers beginning this weekend in Singapore should address key human rights issues in the region that threaten to undermine regional stability and investor confidence, Human Rights Watch said today. It said that members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and participants from other countries should focus on difficult political transitions in Indonesia and Cambodia, the unchecked violence in East Timor, and the worsening human rights situation in Burma.

It's in ASEAN's interest to address underlying problems of governance that remain unresolved, even if the immediate impact of the Asian economic crisis has let up," said Sidney Jones, Executive Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The credibility of ASEAN depends on its ability to deal effectively with both political and economic problems. They can't be separated."

Human Rights Watch urged Japanese Foreign Minister Komura, U.S. Secretary of State Albright, and Australian Foreign Minister Downer to take the lead in coordinating an effort to get heads of state from all the ASEAN governments to convey directly to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie their concern about the violence in East Timor. Paramilitary groups backed by the Indonesian army have attacked U.N. staff and civilians in the weeks leading up to a planned U.N. vote in late August. Until the Indonesian government takes adequate steps to control the militias, donors should work to suspend disbursements on international loans to Jakarta.

Burma became a member of ASEAN in 1997, but its human rights record has worsened in the past year with the roundup of democracy activists and widespread use of forced labor. A mission from the European Union visited Burma from July 6-8 to explore possibilities for "dialogue" on human rights, and a representative of the U.N. Secretary General is due to visit in the coming weeks. Human Rights Watch called on ASEAN members to urge the Burmese government to fully cooperate with prison visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross which began in May, and to implement recommendations by the International Labor Organization for an immediate end to all use of forced labor and unhindered access by the ILO to monitor compliance.

The ASEAN meetings also provide a useful opportunity to press the Cambodian government to enact legal and judicial reforms that would help restore donor and investor confidence. Many ASEAN and Western countries withdrew aid and investments after a violent coup in July 1997 and Cambodia's membership in ASEAN was delayed, but following elections last year Cambodia was admitted last April. The ASEAN dialogue partners should express deep concern about the continuing climate of impunity and urge the Cambodian government to initiate serious, independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for hundreds of killings and other abuses since 1993. They should also make it clear that any tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders must take place under U.N. auspices and in full conformity with international standards.

The ASEAN Regional Forum takes place in Singapore from July 25-26, followed by the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference on July 27-28, which also includes representatives of ASEAN's "dialogue partners" from the U.S., Canada, the European Union, China, Australia, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Russia.