ASEAN Charts a New Course in Manila

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The draft Charter approved by the ten ASEAN foreign ministers on July 30 may constitute the single most important move by the regional organization since it was founded in 1967. The 12-chapter document will for the first time give ASEAN a legal personality and an institutional framework to achieve its goal of forming a EU-style economic and political community by 2015. To date, ASEAN’s ability to act has been limited by its founding principles — consensus decisionmaking and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

The ASEAN Heads of State are expected to approve the final draft at their annual ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in November, in Singapore. After the adoption of the Charter member countries will be legally bound to adhere to ASEAN’s rules and agreements.

The most dramatic aspect of the deliberations in Manila was the inclusion of a Human Rights Commission in the draft Charter. Due to strong opposition from Myanmar (Burma) the assembled foreign ministers agreed to leave the task of defining the commission’s scope and powers to a high level task force.

Few observers expect the terms of reference for the Human Rights Commission to be very rigorous, given the mixed record of human rights protection in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, the inclusion of the Commission in the Charter constitutes an important first step towards acceptance of the principle that member countries must meet certain basic human rights standards. From this perspective, the provisions are likely to be too weak to satisfy human rights groups and the United States and other Western countries, but not so weak as to legitimize the Burmese military junta. Whether the Commission will address the issue of political repression in Myanmar is a different matter.

At a press conference in Singapore the ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong argued that the simple existence of the Commission would help in dealing with the Burmese military junta because the Charter stresses responsibility and the obligations of membership. Malaysia’s foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters that in the private meetings the ASEAN foreign ministers had directly called on the junta to free the charismatic leader of the democratic opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, and had given their Burmese counterpart a “timeline for improvement.” The official communique in fact included specific reference to the “leader of the NLD” (National League for Democracy) as well as “concern on the detention of all political detainees” and a reiteration of previous calls for their “early release.”

ASEAN also broke new ground by including in the draft Charter a provision for “ASEAN Minus X” agreements, that is, agreements that do not require unanimity. This historic innovation will allow the ratification of the Charter by whatever margin the leaders decide among themselves, in the absence of consensus. In other words, although the foreign ministers maintained the principle of consensus at the Manila meeting, Myanmar would not be allowed to hold up final approval of the Charter.

The recognition of “ASEAN Minus X” agreements will be especially critical to the efforts of Southeast Asian countries to respond to problems that were unforeseen by the founding governments four decades ago. These include especially the impact of globalization, which shrinks the world and transcends political boundaries. Current examples include narcotics trafficking and transborder crime, the spillover of Burmese and ethnic minority refugees from Myanmar into Thailand and Malaysia, and drift across national boundaries of dense and acrid smoke from uncontrolled tree burning in Indonesia. The annual pall of smoke from Sumatra has several times brought activity in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to a standstill. The more developed ASEAN countries are also concerned about pandemic diseases that may spread from one country to another because of insufficient capacity or political will.

The foreign ministers also approved two other measures to deal with threats to human security arising out of globalization of labor markets: the establishment of a committee to implement an existing ASEAN declaration to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers; and guidelines for ASEAN embassies in third countries for providing emergency assistance to ASEAN nationals in crisis situations.

Especially because of the symbolic importance to ASEAN of its 40th anniversary, Southeast Asian countries with close ties to the United States regarded with dismay the decision by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to skip the meeting for the second time in three years. Customarily, meetings follow the annual conference between the ASEAN foreign ministers and their counterparts from nine “dialogue partner” countries and the EU. Publicly, the Philippines and other US partner governments expressed “understanding” at the reasons that kept the US Secretary of State in Washington, but privately their attitude was one of disappointment and even resentment. Sending Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in her stead did not overcome the perceived slight.

Rice’s absence reinforced the already widespread impression that the Bush Administration has been too distracted by the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the related confrontation with Congress to pay much attention to Southeast Asia. Rice also missed the annual meeting of the 17-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia’s only regional security forum. Assistant Secretary of Christopher Hill, who filled in for her at the at the ARF meeting, arrived late from Beijing following an intense two-day round of meetings of the 6-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and had little time for substantive discussions.

Many ASEAN worry that the United States is leaving a political vacuum that is being filled by a rising China. Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo, underscored this point in a wrap-up session with the local media. Yeo noted that emergent China and India were reshaping the regionâ€TMs architecture and that US leadership remained critical to maximize the benefits of growing ties with the two economic and military giants while maintaining stability and addressing new challenges such as climate change. The adoption of the Charter indicates that ASEAN does not intend to allow its future to be determined by the vagaries of international power politics, and that the organization is growing up.

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