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Civil society organisations come together to criticise failings of the ASEAN Charter

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The Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN has brought together a multitude of civil society perspectives in its criticism of the newly signed ASEAN Charter.

The Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN obtained a copy of the draft ASEAN Charter when it was leaked to the media on 7 November, prior to its signing by ASEAN leaders at their annual summit on 20 November. Subsequently, the Working Group prepared an analysis of the Charter (summarised below), bringing together a multiplicity of perspectives from national and regional civil society organisations, which was released to the press during the Summit and will also be passed to the ASEAN Secretariat. 

The fact that a copy of the Charter was only obtained via a leak is indicative of the lack of civil society participation in the drafting of the Charter. Not surprisingly then, the Charter falls far short of what is needed to establish a “people-centred” and “people-empowered” ASEAN.

Summary of Working Group’s Analysis

The Charter focuses on how governments will interact with each other, but not about how they should interact with the people.  And where the Charter is able to protect the sovereignty of governments and enshrine confidence-building through consensus, it fails to specify a role for ASEAN with regards to the behaviour of states to their own citizens.

Human rights principles are overarching and should form the basis of legitimacy for ASEAN from which all other principles flow. This would help to ensure that policy formation and implementation is guided by the interests of the people rather than the state. Instead, references to human rights are placed lower down on listings within the Charter as a separate issue and, symbolically, beneath the principles of sovereignty and non-interference. Furthermore, mentions of human rights are left too vague, with no reference to international human rights standards, making it more difficult to hold individual governments to account.

The Charter provides for the establishment of a human rights body, committing all member states to its creation. However, no further details are included regarding the setting up of the body, its roles and responsibilities, or the timeframe for its creation.  Considering the more than 10 years of work that many sectors have put into the creation of an ASEAN human rights mechanism, the Charter should have had more details in it and not run the risk of making this landmark provision inconsequential in operation.

Nevertheless, references to human rights and the “rule of law, good governance and the principles of democracy and constitutional government” may still act as a good handle to demand for the implementation of these principles in every member-state, especially Burma. Furthermore, the establishment of a human rights body is something that civil society will seek to help establish as a mechanism which has a meaningful effect on the promotion and protection of human rights in Southeast Asia. 

Regarding civil society engagement, there are no clear spaces created or procedures established in the Charter to institutionalise the role of citizens and civil society organisations in regional community building. In outlining the main decision making organs within ASEAN, there is barely a mention of engagement with citizens and civil society, or the means by which citizens and civil society can influence the decisions and processes of ASEAN.

In relation to the goal of economic development, the Charter’s focus is on market-led growth. However, the centrality of redistribution and economic solidarity to the goals of poverty eradication, social justice and lasting peace is not acknowledged. Economic development by itself has the potential to worsen the human rights situation of a country, such as through the economic marginalisation of certain groups, the trafficking of people, the exploitation of migrant workers and children, land grabs resulting from “development” projects, and environmental degradation. While unskilled migrant labour constitutes the bulk of labour flows in the region, when the Charter talks about free movement of labour it is referring to professionals, with no recognition of the rights of migrant labour.

The Charter fails to adequately deal with the issue of conflict resolution in the region, only covering conflicts between and among ASEAN states and failing to address the conflicts occurring within state borders. With insurgencies in member states showing regional commonalities, ASEAN cannot ignore the threats that these situations pose to regional peace and security.

Finally, the issue of non-compliance with the decisions and agreements of ASEAN fails to be adequately addressed.  It is stated that serious breaches of the Charter, including serious human rights violations, can be discussed at the Summit for decision pursuant to Article 20. In practice this body would be prone to yield to political compromise and furthermore, with no explicit provision on termination or suspension of membership, relatively powerless to act.

In view of the shortcomings of the Charter and the lack of meaningful civil society participation in its drafting (which are undeniably related), the Working Group reaffirms the demands made at the second and third ASEAN Civil Society Conferences for ratification of the Charter to take place through a process of popular referendum, and supports the drawing up of a “Peoples’ Charter” in time for next year’s ASEAN Summit in Bangkok. 


For Further Information: 

Further information and documents related to SAPA and the SAPA WG on ASEAN’s activities may be downloaded from .
Alternatively, contact the SAPA WG on ASEAN Focal Points:
Corinna Lopa, Southeast Asian Committee for Advocacy, [email protected], +63-928-5025685;
Anselmo Lee, FORUM-ASIA, [email protected], +66-81-8689178.
For more information on the SAPA WG on ASEAN’s engagement with the ASEAN Charter process, please contact:
Jenina Joy Chavez, Focus on the Global South, [email protected], +63-918-9016716;
Alexander Chandra, Institute of Global Justice, [email protected], +62-817-790440.