Activists have derided as toothless a Southeast Asian human rights commission inaugurated at a summit of regional leaders who are also discussing how to achieve greater economic integration.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting in this Thai beach resort, although the three-day annual summit began inauspiciously on Friday when half the bloc’s 10 leaders failed to show up at the opening.

One of the first orders of business was the inauguration of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva described it as “a significant milestone” in the 42-year history of ASEAN.

The group has traditionally steered clear of rights issues because of its reluctance to meddle in the internal affairs of member nations.

But activists immediately condemned the commission - which will focus on promoting rather than protecting rights - as powerless and were angered by the exclusion of several members of civil society from the summit.

“It is a big shame to our dreams for genuine democracy in the region. It’s like all of the human rights of the people in this region have been violated,” said Sister Crescenia L. Lucero, a leading rights advocate and Roman Catholic nun.

ASEAN’s 10 member countries include military-run Myanmar, communist-run Laos and Vietnam plus several countries whose governments routinely persecute opposition parties or political activists.

Members of ASEAN have recently escalated their criticism of Myanmar, particularly over the detention of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But the summit will again likely act by consensus, avoid confrontations and maintain that the group’s approach to engaging Myanmar works better than the West’s sanctions and threats.

The summit will also sign a declaration on climate change and discuss food security, bio-energy, disaster management and how trade barriers can be brought down to bring about a European Union-style grouping by 2015.

The bloc will also meet with leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The opening of the summit came with only half of the region’s leaders in attendance for various reasons, including a tropical storm, domestic politics, a VIP visit and a possible illness. More were expected to show up on Saturday.

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