Southeast Asian leaders endorsed a controversial human rights pact on Sunday during an annual summit in which they also focused on bruising territorial rows and deadly unrest in Myanmar.
Heads of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hailed their declaration on human rights as a landmark agreement that would help protect the region’s 600 million people.
“It’s a legacy for our children,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said after the signing ceremony.
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, the leaders were having to discuss the ethnic violence in ASEAN member Myanmar, where clashes in Rakhine state between Muslim and Buddhists have left 180 people dead since June.
ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said on Sunday that the violence was disturbing and risked destabilising the region.
He said ASEAN leaders would discuss the bloodshed and potentially include a statement referring to it in their end-of-summit communique.
The ASEAN event will be expanded into a two-day East Asia Summit starting on Monday that includes the leaders of the United States, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Russia.
US President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Phnom Penh on Monday after making an historic visit to Myanmar.
Obama decided to make the trip to Myanmar, the first by a sitting US president, to reward and further encourage political developments by the new reformist government there.
However, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which on Saturday described the Muslim Rohingya minority as victims of “genocide”, has urged Obama to pressure Myanmar’s government to stop the bloodshed.
Obama’s aides have signalled that the president will speak out on human rights while on his Asia trip.
They highlighted his intent to express “grave concerns” to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen over his government’s rights record and the need for political reform.
Another point of contention during the three days of top-level diplomacy in Phnom Penh was likely to be the territorial rows over the South China Sea.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, including waters near the coasts of its Asian neighbours.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, also have sometimes overlapping claims to the sea.
The rival claims have for decades made the waterways, home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to sit atop vast natural resources, a potential military flashpoint.
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.
After infighting among ASEAN members this year on how to deal with the issue, Surin said the bloc was ready to present a united front to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the East Asia Summit.
On Saturday Surin floated an ASEAN proposal for a hotline with China aimed at easing maritime tensions.