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ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand move closer to free trade agreement

ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand move closer to Free Trade Agreement

By Barry Mills

Epoch Times Hamilton staff

Jan 24, 2007

Negotiations for an ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade agreement will resume in Wellington in March following talks in the Phillipines.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia summit held in Cebu recently was rescheduled after a typhoon threatened the conference in December.

Australia-New Zealand-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement coordinator Peter Martin said a free trade agreement (FTA) between countries in the ASEAN and Australia and New Zealand aims at deeper economic integration in the region as a means of promoting growth and development.

"The FTA will be comprehensive in scope addressing barriers to trade in goods, services and investment," he said.

The ten member group hopes to have a common market by 2015 and is gearing up to become a trade bloc containing half of the world’s people.

Established in 1967, with Burma, Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, ASEAN is hoping to expand to include Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Counting the European Union as a single market the ASEAN is collectively New Zealand’s fifth largest export market, with export goods in the year June 2006 totalling $2.4 billion.

Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo opened the talks in Cebu by saying that ASEAN was committed on expanding its trade area and stood firm on the issue of North Korea.

She hoped the conference would make progress on issues of energy independence, human rights, economic integration and social justice.

"We want to advance the sense of community in our shared interest to look after each other in terms of justice, economic development and common security," the President said.

But ASEAN is facing criticism about some of its member’s human rights abuses.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was asked to raise these issues when she attended the meetings. Green Party Foreign Affairs spokesperson Keith Locke sent a letter urging her speak to the Philippines President about the dire human rights situation in that country.

"In my letter, I stated my concerns about the extent of human rights abuses in the Philippines. Leftist members of Congress are being arbitrarily jailed or threatened by the authorities, and their supporters are being killed," Mr Locke said.

The Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa also asked the Prime Minister to help stop the abuses there. In a letter they claimed that "the run of the mill human rights abuses - unsolved, investigated political murders (often accompanied by torture) and disappearances - have hit epidemic proportions."

The development of an ASEAN charter, which currently does not exist, will go some way to addressing the importance of democracy and human rights in the group, she said.

Executive Director Jennifer Windsor of rights advocacy group Freedom House was also concerned about human rights abuses. "To achieve its stated mission to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development, ASEAN must begin to address the serious human rights issues of some of its members, such as Burma," she said.

Four of the ten nations in the ASEAN were ranked "Not Free" in the 2006 political rights and civil liberties survey from Freedom House. Burma received the region’s lowest score as the most notorious human rights abuser. Also included on the list are Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

 source: Epoch Times