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The Asean Summit report card

Updated On: Nov 02, 2009

The Association for South-east Asian Nations Summit held in Thailand last weekend should have been applauded but instead attracted negative headlines. The difference relates to a mismatch of expectations and managing an overcrowded agenda.

The summit brought key Asian players together. Some 42 agreements were reportedly reached over the weekend. These ranged from outstanding trade and economic integration issues as well as the launch of a human rights commission.

Asean leaders met their counterparts, including Japanese Premier Yukio Hatoyama. Differences emerged about exactly how Asians come together, with varying proposals from Japan and Australia. These differences will continue to be debated in the weeks ahead, when President Barack Obama attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and the first United States-Asean Summit, both in Singapore. But the need and energy to meet and dialogue were evident.

All in all, not bad for a summit that some feared would not happen at all. Remember that disruptions in April by protesters - the "Red Shirts" who support ousted Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra - embarrassingly upended that last attempted meeting. This time, an 18,000-strong force was deployed to ensure leaders met in peace.

Yet other turbulence intruded. A meeting by leaders with civil society representatives ended up in a boycott. This resulted from arguments about who was fit to represent civil society. Some civil society groups put up names which did not match those nominated by governments.

For Singapore, the official choice was humanitarian assistance group Mercy Relief, and its chairman T K Udairam, who is CEO of Changi Hospital. The alternative was Mr S Samydurai of the Think Centre, whose tag line is "Towards a vibrant political society" and which has steered often to controversy.

A second criticism centred on the human rights commission that was launched as Asean's first mechanism on this essential and yet sensitive topic. Activists pushed for a body that is independent and can actively investigate violations to strongly protect people.

Instead, Asean's commission has members who are accountable to governments and must respect their domestic affairs. Proceeding through consultation and consensus, their main work is to submit reports a few times a year and promote human rights awareness and declarations.

The Singaporean chosen is Mr Richard Magnus, who was a much respected Senior District Judge who has since retired. He knows international law well but is not known for championing human rights.

So was the negativity over the summit justified?

In recent years, Asean has promised to become more "people-centred". Leaders might think civil society representatives should be happy to meet them even briefly, given how much else is going on. But some representatives think they are the true face of the regional community.

For human rights, some officials think the new commission is a credible start that can be reviewed as more members become comfortable and more democratic. But reactions show the gap between expectations and what has been delivered.

Citizens now expect human rights to be protected and the diversity of civil society to be acknowledged. In this mood, half-measures can strain credibility and affect the perceptions of Asean. This could damage the group's legitimacy as a hub to bring together much larger powers, including the US.

Expectations need to be managed, as well as the time and occasion. The Asean Summit achieved quite a few things. But the danger is to overpromise and then underdeliver.

It may be better to meet with civil society where there is more time and at a working level with the Asean Secretary-General and officials, and not just ceremonially with leaders.

It may be more effective to deal with human rights in a different format, bringing together states who are ready to protect at least the most vulnerable groups, like women and children who are trafficked between borders.

Otherwise, halfway steps for human rights can turn out wrong. Sometimes, nothing is better than something.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society for 2009.

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