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No people participation – No ASEAN Charter signing

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As the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore is around the corner, civil society organisations have highlighted that the ASEAN Charter cannot be signed if the people's voices are left out from the process. 
This month, the leaders of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) at its 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore will sign the “ASEAN Charter”, aiming to turn the loosely structured body into a rule-based one. ASEAN currently exercises without a legally binding document unlike other regional inter-governmental organisations such as the European Union, the Organisation of American States, and the African Union.

The plan of drafting a “people-centred charter”, the term put out by ASEAN, only surfaced in the eyes of the public in December 2005, when ASEAN heads of state met in Kuala Lumpur and adopted the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Charter. While the ASEAN claims that the drafting of the charter has been “people-centred”, people’s voices are likely to be left out due to the lack of people participation in its drafting.

Throughout the two-year process, a number of key civil society organisations in the region, many of which comes under the banner of the Solidarity for Asia Peoples Advocacy (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN (a network of Asian NGOs and Trade Unions) have been advocating for key issues to be given their proper weighting. The issues include human rights: the establishment of a credible and efficient body, social and economic justice, participatory democracy, rule of law, the right to development, ecologically sustainable development, cultural diversity, and gender equality.

This lack of people participation suggests that the inclusion of a human rights body in the charter is just to provide an impression of concern for the needs of the people. In reality the body is likely to be little more than a political talking shop that does little to address the human rights violations occurring on the ground. 

Both the time-frame and processes during the charter drafting brings the issues of transparency and accountability of ASEAN into question. ASEAN member states have announced with confidence prior to the 2007 summit that the charter will be adopted, despite people’s participation in the charter being severely limited.

To take Thailand as an example, the forums discussing the charter were only open to governments, think tanks, and a limited numbers of civil society group. These have done nothing to tackle the perception of the people that ASEAN is irrelevant to their everyday lives. Instead, it has been left to civil society to try to reach out to the government, the Eminent Person Groups (EPG) and the High Level Task Force on the Drafting of the ASEAN Charter (HLTF) [drafters of the charter] to bring the people’s concerns to them, rather the other way around.

In Cambodia, the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to show up to the NGO-organised forum intended to raise the awareness of the peoples on the charter process. This is not to mentioned countries such as Laos, Vietnam, Burma, and Brunei where civil society barely exists due to political oppression.

Civil society groups have continued to ask why it is necessary to cram the drafting of the charter into a two-year time frame. Many times, ASEAN would reply that to improve the lives of the peoples, the charter must be signed. How can this be so if the people’s voices are not being taken into account?

Furthermore, the public will see no draft of the charter itself prior to its signing at the ASEAN summit which is less than three weeks away. Recently more than 200 activists in the ASEAN+ Civil Society Conference III, held on 2-4 November in Singapore, again called on ASEAN to ensure transparency through the disclosure of the draft ASEAN Charter and to engage in public consultation and discussion before its adoption.

If ASEAN wishes to make this charter a truly people-oriented one, it must bring in the voices of the people. Delaying the ASEAN charter until this is done will be more acceptable than adopting a fake “people-centred” one. Otherwise ASEAN will continue to be as an “elitist organisation” if it adopts a charter which has had little people participation in its drafting.