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South East Asia to launch charter

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jakarta

Indonesian President Yudhoyono applauds the charter among Asean's ten flags
Asean's charter enshrines non-interference alongside human rights

Ten South East Asian countries are launching a regional charter setting out their shared aims and methods of working together.

The Association of South East Asian Nations, or Asean, has existed for more than 40 years, but until now has had no written constitution.

Today's launch is seen as a milestone in the group's history.

However, the charter has little power to force change on the group's most pressing issues.

Run a finger down the list of principles in the new Asean charter and its priorities are clear.

Number one calls for "respect for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states".

Number two, for "peaceful settlement of disputes".

Number three calls for "non-interference in member states internal affairs", and number four sets out again their right to live without external interference.

Non-interference

The issue of how much leverage Asean has over its members' behaviour has been a political hot potato throughout the writing of this charter.

When it was finally signed a year ago, one of its members - Burma - had just made headlines by brutally suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations.

The new charter calls for member countries to respect fundamental freedoms and protect human rights, and it sets up the creation of a human rights court.

But the details of how that court will operate have yet to be worked out.

Any disputes over member states' behaviour will be dealt with on the basis of "consultation and consensus" - principles that Asean holds dear.

The group likes to project a family image, preferring inclusion and compromise to isolation and judgement.

This charter is a key point along the road for Asean.

It makes the group into a legal entity, and formally sets out its joint vision economically as well as politically.

But many are waiting to see how much the new agreement will do to bring that vision closer to reality.

The agreement was signed in November 2007 and was scheduled to have been launched at a summit in Thailand this month.

But political unrest in Bangkok forced the postponement of the summit, until late February.

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