The ASEAN Charter not daring, lacking in vision

Posted by Jenina Joy Chavez under Opinions on 21 November 2007

The ASEAN charter is a disappointment. It's neither daring nor visionary. It's not people-centred nor is it "empowering" the people. Really shameful! The ASEAN Peoples' Charter process is launched by the SAPA Working Group on ASEAN.

The ASEAN Charter
not daring, lacking in vision

When Leaders of Member Governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet for their Thirteenth Summit in Singapore on Tuesday (November 20th), the world's attention would be focused on what they will do on the matter of Myanmar/Burma. It will be recalled that in the last week of September, protests led by monks were met with violence by the military junta. The protests, triggered by soaring fuel prices, were the largest peaceful demonstrations since the military took over in 1988. The Burma question has become a yearly embarrassment and pressure point for ASEAN, and everyone is curious whether the collective global indignation after the September violence would prompt ASEAN Leaders to do something different this year.

The expectation that ASEAN will do something different also arises from its announcement three years ago that it will embark on building a Charter to formalize itself, establish the legal framework that would define the duties and responsibilities of its Members, and guide its relationship with external partners. This was followed by instructions to the Eminent Persons Group, which was appointed to draw up recommendations on what the Charter should contain, to be "daring and visionary".

After leaders signed the declaration on the establishment of the ASEAN Charter process in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005, civil society groups saw this as a chance to engage ASEAN on what a meaningful regionalism for the people should look like. The Solidarity for Asian People's Advocacies (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN, a network of more than 100 national and regional organizations engaging in ASEAN issues, gave submissions to the EPG and its successor group (the High Level Task Force on the drafting of the Charter), participated in consultations, and initiated national processes to open the debate on ASEAN and the Charter.

The initial expectation and hope, however, soon turned into concern when it became apparent that the ASEAN Charter was not to be subject of wide-ranging discussions, and that it was not to be made public until after it is signed by the ASEAN leaders. Nothing of the Charter was seen until Thai independent media outfit Prachatai and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism posted leaked copies of the final draft of the Charter on their websites in early November. Concern then turns into disappointment one fails to see daring and vision in the ASEAN Charter.

The Charter does its job in terms of codifying ASEAN's many previous agreements and declarations, and bestowing it legal personality. It clarifies issues on membership, and delineates functions and responsibilities of the different ASEAN organs. It creates a new formal ASEAN bureaucracy from the formation of the three Community Councils (Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural) and the establishment of the Committee of Permanent Representatives, to the redefinition and strengthening of roles of the Secretary General and the ASEAN Secretariat. It even gives mandate to the much awaited ASEAN human rights body.

Disappointment springs not so much from things that are found in the Charter, but from things that are not but should be. The Charter reaffirms a government-centric ASEAN, defining rules of engagement for Members, and institutionalizing age-old values of consensus and non-interference. However, it lacks clear mechanisms for dispute settlement, accountability and redress. While the bodies themselves are given mandate, the details are not to be found in the Charter, raising concerns that leaving them to the ministerial bodies and instruments of ASEAN would dilute such mandate. Good offices, conciliation and mediation may be resorted to, but the default for unresolved conflict is still the ASEAN Summit. Considering the long years that the leaders have managed to ignore or dodge urgent but controversial issues in the region, undefined dispute mechanisms that are eventually settled politically hardly gives confidence that disputes will get speedy and proper resolution at all.

The inclusion of human rights in the Charter's preamble and statement of principles, and the creation of the human rights body is a milestone for ASEAN. It is regrettable that the Charter leaves this Article incomplete, with the body's operation still to be defined according to the terms of reference to be determined by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, which is another political gathering.

The Charter talks about a people-oriented ASEAN, and upholds consultation and consensus as basic principles in decision-making. Yet the Charter does not provide clear mechanisms for transparency and participation, and does not recognize engagement and interaction with non-state actors and civil society. The Charter is also silent about how ASEAN's operations can be subject to independent scrutiny, how its processes can be accessed by interested groups, and how official information should be made public.

Other missing elements include the non-mention of migrant labor which makes up a substantial portion of labor flows in the region. The only reference to gender and women's rights was in the selection of the Secretary General and two of the four Deputies.

Finally, the Charter fails to celebrate the plurality of ASEAN economic experiences and recognize its Members' successes based on heterodox policy mixes, by explicitly enshrining in the Charter principles a market-driven economy. The desire for a Single Market and production base should not be construed as exclusively dependent on liberalization, but should be treated as an attempt to learn from how the more successful ASEAN members where able to do it without yielding everything to the market, and to build the capacities of other members in the spirit of genuine regional solidarity.

Many analysts have already written off the Charter as another of ASEAN's many grand declarations that never got implemented. That is, whatever may be considered positive about it will again take years to see fruition. But when leaders announced that the Charter will be "daring and visionary", civil society was at least willing to give them a chance.

The Charter is a letdown. It does not equip ASEAN to deal with controversial issues that hounded it in the past, and certainly does not offer anything new that could help it deal with Burma. It is time that the initiative is wrested from the political elites, and given back to the people. Let us define the ASEAN we need, and start the building of an ASEAN People's Charter.

Jenina Joy Chavez is the Coordinator of Focus on the Global South-Philippines Programme and an active member of the Solidarity for Asian Peoples' Advocacies (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN. She is also a Trustee of Action for Economic Reforms.

About SAPA Working Group on ASEAN

The SAPA WG on ASEAN is a common platform for collective action on ASEAN advocacy. The WG-ASEAN respects and promotes the multiplicity of perspectives, strategies and forms employed by its individual members, as it strives for specific unities in ASEAN-related advocacy and action. Presently, the SAPA WG on ASEAN has more than 100 CSOs, national and regional organizations, as members.

Further information and documents related to SAPA and SAPA WG on ASEAN activities may be downloaded from SAPA

For more information, please contact:
Mr. Samydorai Sinapan, Think Center, +65 9479 1906, e-mail

Ms. Consuelo Katrina Lopa, South East Asian Committee for Advocacy (SEACA), +63 928 5025685, e-mail

Sources and Relevant Links:

SAPA Working Group on ASEAN ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint Only for the ASEAN Elites 21 November 2007



ACSC-3 No Bloody Hand on an ASEAN Charter

ACSC-3 Singapore Declaration


SAPA ASEAN Peoples' Charter Process Launched 7 November 2007

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