ASEAN Charter- hurdles cleared over human rights commission

Updated On: Jul 31, 2007

The ASEAN Charter is supposed to reform the group’s anti-institutional character to embody something more rules-oriented and effective.

Most chapters of the ASEAN Charter have been completed by the High Level Task Force, except for the issue on whether a regional human rights mechanism should be included. 

In January 2007’s ASEAN summit, ASEAN leaders collectively declared that the upcoming Charter should address the “pressing need to strengthen and reinforce further the existing institutions of ASEAN by providing ASEAN with a legal personality and an efficient structure”. As the group’s first constitution, the Charter represents a new beginning – to Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, it means a “new phase” with a larger, more efficient Secretariat, he told Channel NewsAsia. The Charter would transform institutional arrangements away from the ‘Asean way’ of non-interference, would make dealings rules-based, and would, many hope, include a regional human rights mechanism.

However, ASEAN leaders encountered a roadblock when Myanmar rejected the inclusion of a human rights commission. According to AP, Myanmar froze the proposal despite a clause that allowed unwilling members like VietnamLaosand Cambodiato join the commission only when they felt ready. Amidst “lively discussions”, several ASEAN nations along with Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo decried Myanmar’s oppression of democracy and called for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. The Today Paper reported that older members (i.e. IndonesiaMalaysiaThailand, the PhilippinesSingaporeandBrunei) were more amenable to the human rights commission idea, while the others were far less enthusiastic. On writing a human rights mechanism into the Charter, the group was split between the older members who wanted to use the phrase “shall establish” and the newer members who insisted that “may establish” was more appropriate, reported the Today Paper. In the end, “there was no agreement within the high-level task force on the issue,” said an anonymous diplomat to the Straits Times.

Some more progressive states also proposed that a voting system should be used when consensus was unnecessary, and could rescue some issues from gridlock, reported Businessworld. But thus far, the task force has honoured non-interference, meaning that members who violate the Charter will not be sanctioned or punished. This is good for the Myanmar generals, but frustrating to the many other international and domestic parties who want ASEAN to push for more change. Said Romulo “I sense there is some impatience, there is frustration [by some countries over Myanmar's lack of progress],” reported AP, “There should be reconciliation of all the various factions so that this will benefit not only the people of Myanmar, but our own credibility as ASEAN would be enhanced.”

After an uninspiring weekend in which these hot potato issues – human rights commission, voting system and sanctions for violators – were tossed around, the High Level Task Force passed them to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. As Today Paper observes, “If the nations fail to come up with an agreement, it may affect the bloc's reputation, which has been trying to shake off its ‘talkshop’ image”. ASEAN’s drafting of a landmark charter has been advised by, and is now watched expectantly by regional and international organisations like ASEAN-ISIS, Human Rights Watch and the European Union, whose Secretary General Javier Solana writing for the Straits Times wished the group “every encouragement to pursue an ambitious result”. With non-interference allowing unwilling states to undermine pivotal proposals, the ASEAN Charter looks to be far from ambitious.

Fortunately, after four hours of discussion by the Foreign Ministers today (30 July) the deadlock on human rights was broken. The ministers have agreed that there will be a human rights body but with details on the latter to be decided later.

On another point, the convergence amongst the Southeast Asian states was achieved much earlier - that ASEAN must remain nuclear-weapon free. Since the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone treaty (SEANWFZ) was set up in 1997, no ASEAN state has violated it.  For regional security purposes, ASEAN will attempt to convince the key nuclear powers to promise not to transport or store nuclear weapons within the region.

In response to the interest expressed by several ASEAN countries to go for nuclear power, a regional nuclear safety watchdog will also be established to monitor all forthcoming nuclear energy programmes. An early warning system in case of nuclear accidents is to be developed, as well as a regional emergency preparedness and response plan. The Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said “Nuclear energy for power and peaceful purposes… that’s okay,” reported the Philippine Star, “But we want to ensure that it remains so.” “The emergence of possible non-state actors that might be eager to resort to the threat or use of nuclear weapons highlights the seriousness of this problem,” Romulo said earlier. ASEAN will work with the U.N.’s  International Atomic Energy Agency to strengthen surveillance on nuclear weapons. (30 July 2007)


Asean breaks deadlock in human rights (Straits Times online, 30 July 2007)

Asean slams Myanmar for lack of democracy(Straits Times, 30 July 2007)

Europe and Asia: A relationship that matters (Straits Times, 30 July 2007)

Rules-based ASEAN pushed (... but analysts doubtful if European Union-style community will work) (BusinessWorld, 30 July 2007)

Obstacles to Asean charter (New Straits Times, 30 July 2007)

Asean Charter talks hit snag (Today Paper, 30 July 2007)

Asean to set up nuke plant watchdog (Philippines Star, 29 July 2007)

Asean charter framers can’t get past rights panel issue (AFP, 29 July 2007)

Asean should focus on prosperity (NST, 29 July 2007)

SE Asia drafts first charter, without rights body (Reuters, 29 July 2007)

Southeast Asian countries fail to reach full agreement on human rights (AP, 29 July 2007)

Human rights, voting issues hobble ASEAN charter draft (Bangkok Post, 29 July 2007)

Southeast Asia mulls tougher security rules for atomic energy (AFP, 29 July 2007)

ASEAN at crossroads on its 40th birthday (AFP, 29 July 2007)

ASEAN & human rights (Manila Bulletin, 29th July 2007)

Rights group urges Asean to push Myanmar democracy (AFP, 29 July 2007)

New challenges for new ASEAN Sec-Gen: George Yeo (Channel Newsasia, 28 July 2007)

Southeast Asian countries struggle to end differences on human rights (28 July 2007)

Drafting Of Asean Charter Turns Lively (Bernama, 28 July 2007)

Southeast Asia wants nuclear powers' pledge to keep nukes out of region (Jakarta Post, 28 July 2007)

Myanmar nixes rights body in Southeast Asia– diplomats (AP, 27 July 2007)

Myanmar opposes human rights body in Southeast Asia, diplomats say (Jakarta Post, 27 July 2007)

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