ASEAN Ministers meeting in Singapore last week were pushed to address diverse controversies ranging from the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihar temple to the situation in Myanmar. Underlying these was an ongoing agenda on Asean institutions, including a promised human rights body and a Charter.
The Asean Charter is intended to articulate principles and objectives, give legal personality to the grouping, and shape its key processes and institutions.
All 10 governments had signed the document in Singapore at the end of 2007 and have given themselves one year to ratify.
This is not without controversy. Is the Asean Charter the right step forward for the grouping of these diverse neighbours toward becoming a community?
Proponents urge that all embrace the document, while opponents argue that it is not worth the effort. Differences found expression in a public debate between two heads of think tanks in Singaporean: Both of whom are ambassadors.
Mr Barry Desker, Director of the Rajaratnam School, believes Asean did less than it could have. It has even gone backwards in some areas.
Professor Tommy Koh, who chaired the High Level Task force that negotiated the Charter, defends it as a good and workable compromise.
Debate between Charter proponents and opponents will likely grow. Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have yet to ratify the Charter and being voluble democracies open to debate, will hold public and parliamentary discussions before deciding.
Words: no substitute for action
The debate might consider not just the words on paper. Unfolding events this past week hint at how the Charter might function. First, does the Charter do enough to deal with Myanmar or other states that might violate the norms of the group? Myanmar last week announced its ratification of the Charter. This may hearten Charter proponents as one more step forward.
But the junta has also announced that Ms Aung San Suu Kyi will be kept under house arrest until the end of next year. A time limit is good, but given that Asean urges bolder steps toward democracy — a free and fair election in 2010 and freedom for Ms Suu Kyi — this shows that the generals do what they want.
The junta’s ratification seems more a gesture than a genuine agreement to Asean’s values and norms in the Charter, which include democracy, human rights and good governance.
Instead, the generals claim to uphold the norm of non-intervention, another principle enshrined in the Charter.
So too went the debate about the Asean human rights body, a promise from Article 14 of the Charter. Optimists urged it forward, and the High Level Panel on its terms of reference met for the first time in Singapore.
Yet that first meeting revealed differences and a lack of ambition. While some called for monitoring and peer pressure, no one even set out the long-term goal of a more independent commission like those in the United Nations and some other regions.
To the contrary, some countries, including Myanmar, had invoked the principle of non-interference to argue even against reporting on human rights records. If this continues, the body and the Charter will be emaciated.
Some, like Mr Desker, urge that Myanmar’s membership be suspended, while Prof Koh argues that if Myanmar were not a member, further inroads could be put out of reach.
The hard truth is that the international community does not easily deal with any country that wilfully disregards norms. Note the six-party talks about North Korea at the sidelines in Singapore. Even with the United States, China, Japan and Russia on board, progress on the issue has been slow.
Can we reasonably expect Asean to do more with Myanmar than the UN or six parties have done with these other states, even if its Charter is more strongly worded? Words alone — whether in the infant Asean Charter or the long established UN Charter — are no substitute for political will, and firm and fair action.
Second, can the Charter ensure peace between neighbours? The Charter sets out principles for the peaceful settlement of disputes. Even Charter sceptics like Mr Desker admit “the risk of inter-state war in South-east Asia has declined today”, partly due to Asean.
Still, last week saw the Preah Vihar temple dispute between Cambodia and Thailand boiling over. Military forces had squared off and Cambodia has sought intercession by the UN and by Asean. Yet Asean suggests that bilateral consultation and negotiations continue.
The Preah Vihar incident suggests the present, relatively happy situation of peace cannot be taken for granted. If need be, the Charter can serve as a basis for mediation for the two sides to this or other crises, and engrave the habits of peace more deeply. It would also serve, if conflict eventuates, as a basis for rightly criticising both sides.
Three clues to Charter Efficacy
Can the Charter make Asean more efficient and effective? Three very different events from last week may shed some light.
First, at the Asean Regional Forum, the traditional night of fun and frivolous acts by visiting foreign ministers was jettisoned.
Second, the Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan also reported back on the efforts made in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
Third, the Asean chairmanship has moved to Thailand, where the Samak government is facing domestic political pressures and had had its foreign minister resign under pressure just weeks before the Singapore meeting.
These three events point to the fact that Asean needs to be both more trim and also more institutionalised. Charter proponents like Prof Koh are right to note the Charter takes a good step forward by creating a coordinating council to try to ensure that the many meetings that Asean holds are trimmed to be more effective and directed.
It is also a step forward to empower the Asean Secretary-General to monitor and report non-compliance to the summit.
An Asean secretariat with more responsibility can hedge against depending too much on the Asean chair, especially when domestic politics heat up and distract.
Some Charter opponents like Mr Desker wish to make Asean more “people centred” by involving Parliaments. This is laudable but may inadvertently make Asean even more unwieldy. Democracy is, after all, still unsettled within most Asean member countries and to democratise at the regional level at the present time may make things worse.
Can the Charter make a difference? Cases like Myanmar, where there is so much recalcitrance and suspicion, will always be hard to handle.
Yet for the first time, the Charter would allow the Summit to take emergency measures and to deal with serious breaches by any member state. Even if there is no consensus, the Summit can decide under Article 20 on how to deal with a specific situation. To me, this implicitly opens the door to non-consensus decisions, if the leaders see fit. Additionally, there are many other improvements, some surveyed above, that can be taken, and on which the Charter can help.
Ratify, Review and Criticise
The Charter needs to be ratified. To do any less, after having signed off on it after a year of negotiations at their 40th anniversary summit, is to invite international ridicule of Asean.
Yet, even as ratification is necessary, it is far from sufficient. The Charter is not an end in itself, but just a useful beginning.
There is a five-year review built into the Charter and this should be used. Political-will needs to be built to go further and faster in future. The voices that call for a better Charter may not be so wrong in principle, but on the question of timing.
Hopefully, criticism will not engender resistance and cynicism, but inspire hope for further change and improvement.