ASEAN Charter: One Step Forward
By Ralph A. Cossa
President of Pacific Forum,
Center for Strategic & Int’l Studies
HONOLULU ― The Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) has, in commemoration of its 40th anniversary, adopted its first formal charter, thus conferring ``legal personality" upon this intergovernmental organization, complete with its own flag, emblem, anthem (to be written), and motto: One Vision, One Identity, One Community.
Now it is time to choose an official flower and an ASEAN bird. I would suggest the shrinking violet and the ostrich, in keeping with ASEAN's continuing tendencies to shrink away from dealing with sensitive issues while burying its head in the sand and pretending that regional problems will somehow go away.
These tendencies were clearly in evidence at the ASEAN Summit in Singapore, when the ``landmark" Charter was adopted. The Singaporean hosts had invited U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari to talk to the assembled leaders about his mission to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), but he had to be disinvited after several members objected.
Any talk about censuring the ruling junta for its horrific crackdown on peaceful demonstrators earlier this fall was quickly set aside in keeping with the principle of ``non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states," as embodied in the new charter.
On the plus side, the charter also calls for ``respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice," and, over the earlier objection of several members (including Myanmar), calls for the establishment of an ``ASEAN human rights body" (which will operate in accordance with terms of reference yet to be determined).
Since, ``as a basic principle, decision-making in ASEAN shall be based on consultation and consensus," it is difficult to envision a ``human rights body" with any teeth or credibility, however.
It did not have to be this way. When the first draft of the ASEAN Charter was prepared by ASEAN's Eminent Persons Group (EPG), it called for stronger enforcement mechanisms, including expulsion from ASEAN for those violating the charter.
The final version calls for violators to be ``referred to the ASEAN Summit for decision," where the rules of consensus normally apply. The charter does state that, ``when consensus cannot be achieved, the ASEAN Summit may decide how a specific decision can be made," but without any reference to how such a decision could, in fact, be made.
The EPG had also recommended that ASEAN relax its style of decision-making by adopting an ``ASEAN Minus X" formula that would allow decisions to be reached without full consensus.
Instead, the charter institutes an ``ASEAN Minus X" formula only as an escape clause, allowing for ``flexible participation" when it comes to the implementation of economic commitments, ``when there is a consensus to do so."
Theoretically, by allowing those not quite ready for prime time to opt out, this could facilitate the achievement of ASEAN's more lofty economic goals ― an economically integrated single market and production base with the free flow of goods, services, and investment and facilitated movement of businessmen, labor, and capital ― among those who are willing, but this remains to be seen.
The failure to adopt an ``ASEAN Minus X" approach to decision-making also makes it essential that all ASEAN members ratify the charter before it can enter into force.
This could be problematic, as the one proud bird among the ostriches, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, made clear at the informal heads of state dinner, when she announced that ``the expectation of the Philippines is that if Myanmar signs the charter, it is committed to returning to the path of democracy and release of Aung San Suu Kyi."
Calling for ``the full protection of human rights within ASEAN," President Arroyo warned that the Philippine Congress ``would have extreme difficulty" in ratifying the charter absent the release of Daw Suu Kyi.
Unfortunately, Manila's stance is the exception rather than the rule. Most ASEAN members are proclaiming, with obvious sighs of relief, that the situation in Myanmar has ``returned to normal," as if the junta's definition of that term ― a totalitarian police state without freedom of expression, movement, due process, or even access to the internet ― should be tolerated, much less a cause for celebration.
Whenever ASEAN officials are challenged to respond to the growing embarrassment that Myanmar represents, they quickly respond that it would be ``counterproductive" to expel Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, from the club, as if doing nothing and total banishment were the only options.
How about temporary suspension? How about measures by individual ASEAN states to ``temporarily" halt or defer interaction with Myanmar until they can obtain ``further clarification" of what steps it plans to take to live up to the Charter? How about more ASEAN heads of state echoing President Arroyo's statement?
The failure to adequately address this situation will have a negative impact on steadily improving U.S.-ASEAN relations as well.
``The reputation and credibility of ASEAN as an organization has been called into question because of the situation in Burma,'' noted U.S. trade negotiator Susan Schwab, adding that ``it is impossible to imagine a [free trade agreement between the U.S. and ASEAN] in the near term under the current political circumstances."
Many of us were hoping that the charter would signify ASEAN's coming of age. By merely codifying existing norms, it is the same old wine in the same old bottle. To be credible, ASEAN must demonstrate a willingness to stand behind the lofty principles it proclaims. Myanmar presents the first test, one that ASEAN appears intent on flunking.
Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS [email@example.com], a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and senior editor of Comparative Connections, a quarterly electronic journal [www.csis.org/pacfor]. He can be reached at RACPacForum@cs.com.