Inter Press Service | Nov 3, 2006
ASEAN’s new charter: Don’t look now
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia — It could be the most significant development for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since it was established in 1967. Yet few among the regional bloc’s 550 million people are even aware that they are about to have a charter for closer cooperation and economic integration.
Officials say the bulk of the work in gaining recommendations for the charter has been completed. But instead of regular, broad-ranging consultations at all levels of society across the grouping — which comprises Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore — most people are clueless.
The plan to establish a charter was first outlined in a Kuala Lumpur declaration last December during the 11th ASEAN summit. An Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was tasked with coming up with the recommendations for inclusion in the charter.
The EPG’s recommendations will be presented to the ASEAN summit in Cebu, Philippines, next month. The bloc will then set up a high-level task force to draft the charter proper, which is expected to be ready by the December 2007 summit.
The EPG says it has met with civil-society groups but many have not heard about the charter, while others are belatedly submitting a joint memorandum after a civil society-initiated workshop held last month organized by Malaysian human-rights group Suaram and the Southeast Asia Committee for Advocacy (SEACA).
Critics suspect the lack of public consultation over the charter could be due to the real intention behind the blueprint. They see it as giving a legal personality to ASEAN, paving the way for a regional economic framework that would facilitate investment and trade in the region, while the interests of ordinary people — workers, the poor and the marginalized — could come a distant second.
They point to the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), which will eliminate tariffs on all products in the region, and the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services, which aims to achieve a free flow of services, both by 2015. Meanwhile, the ASEAN Investment Area agreement aims to facilitate a free flow of investment.
ASEAN’s "Vision 2020" of economic integration and competitiveness was further developed into the concept of an "ASEAN Economic Community" (AEC) at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in 2002. The AEC is seen as the end goal of economic integration in ASEAN by 2020, though it could become a reality by 2015.
But ASEAN secretary general Ong Keng Yong said it was crucial to underscore that the bloc was not constructing an economic community along the lines of the European Union.
"While the EU ensures the free movement of goods, services, capital [including investment] and people across the territories of its member states, ASEAN seeks to create a unique single ASEAN market where there is a free flow of goods, services, investment, skilled labor and a freer flow of capital," he said in September, pointedly omitting unskilled labor, including migrant workers, hundreds of thousands of whom are undocumented and exploited in host countries in the region.
In some ways, the lack of extensive public consultation on the ASEAN charter is reminiscent of the high-level official secrecy surrounding the negotiations for the free-trade agreement between Malaysia and the United States, the third round of which got under way this Monday in Kuala Lumpur.
Activists fear that once the ASEAN charter is ready, it will be thrust on the people of the region as a fait accompli. They want the charter to be people-centered as opposed to being business- or trade-centered and they are calling for the interests of workers and labor to take precedence over the interests of corporations and capital.
Civil-society groups in Malaysia also want the ASEAN charter to uphold economic and distributive justice that would reduce poverty and close the region’s yawning gap between the rich and the poor. "The ASEAN charter should not legitimize the current neo-liberal economic policies being pursued by ASEAN through bilateral and multilateral free-trade agreements," said the joint memorandum prepared after the Suaram-SEACA workshop last month.
"We want the ASEAN charter to include the promotion and protection of human rights" as the core value to be embraced by ASEAN states, Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng told Inter Press Service.
Activists want these rights standards to be based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related conventions rather that any relative "Asian" notion of human rights that may suit authoritarian regimes. The charter should also be gender-sensitive and oriented toward sustainable development.
But they are also wary that well-meaning principles and provisions will be useless if the charter does not provide for effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and institutions. These could include semi-judicial bodies such as a regional human-rights commission and judicial bodies such as a regional human-rights court.
It is unlikely, though, that the charter will include such a strong human-rights framework. Among the ASEAN states are several undemocratic nations that pay lip service to human rights, if anything at all. These countries will very likely resist any attempt to introduce universally accepted human-rights standards into the charter.
Instead, the most activists can hope for is a reference in the charter to an ongoing initiative to set up a regional human-rights mechanism, which has been dragging on for a while without any tangible results. The hope is that such a mention will put the initiative on a firmer footing and allow the mechanism to take root in ASEAN, giving it a life of its own to evolve into stronger regional institutions and enforcement mechanisms.
In line with this, activists are also asking for a broader understanding of "security" to be spelled out in the charter. They argue that the current ASEAN security community’s definition of security issues is not inclusive, as references are made only to the state but not to the people.
They are therefore asking for the concept of "human security" to be enshrined. "Human security encompasses not only freedom from violence but also freedom from threats to people’s lives, including hunger, poverty, disease, marginalization and exclusion," said the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacies (SAPA) in a submission to the EPG in Bali this year.
SAPA is a network of civil-society groups engaged in campaigns and advocacy on various issues of public interest at the national and regional levels.
Human security, it added, also hinged on environmental integrity and ecological security that safeguarded against degradation and destruction that caused disease, harsh living conditions and loss of lives and livelihoods.
There is also growing recognition of trans-boundary issues such as migration, the flow of refugees into neighboring countries, smog and people-trafficking. Activists want ASEAN’s principle of non-interference to be removed as "it can no longer effectively address and resolve such issues satisfactorily", said Yap.
Another activist argued that ASEAN could take a leaf from the ALBA pact among Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. ALBA (the Spanish acronym for the "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas") is a progressive alternative to the US-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Under ALBA, each country is free to develop as it wishes, taking into consideration its cultural and historical heritage, and its economic and social needs. The ASEAN charter, he said, could emulate the pact’s principles such as sovereignty (instead of corporate rule), solidarity (instead of domination), cooperation (instead of exploitation) and complementarity (instead of competition).
Crucially, ALBA principles oppose the corporate privatization of basic services such as health care, education and distribution of water: instead, the interests of smallholders, cultural diversity and biodiversity are all supposed to be protected and great importance placed on the welfare of rural and indigenous populations.
A senior Malaysian Foreign Ministry official told activists in Malaysia that there was still time for civil groups to make their views heard. But for the millions of ordinary people across the region, news of plans for the charter will probably reach them too late.