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Ratification of ASEAN Charter: An opportunity for progress, not a rubber stamp

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The leaders of ASEAN have failed to use the occasion of the signing of a new ASEAN Charter to move forward on human rights in Burma. National parliaments must delay ratification of the Charter until concrete progress on Burma is made. Parliamentarians should also seek out the views of the citizens they claim to represent before deciding whether this is a Charter worthy of ratification.
Today the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a Charter which aims to cement “One Vision, One identity, One Community” for its 10 member countries.  However, ASEAN’s leaders have failed to use this occasion to gain concrete concessions from Burma regarding the release of political prisoners, the instigation of inclusive national dialogue towards national reconciliation, and meaningful steps towards a peaceful transition to democracy.  All of these demands were included in a widely acknowledged statement issued by ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers on 27 September.  Yet, as the people of Southeast Asia have come to learn, it is important to judge ASEAN on its actions rather than its words. 

Earlier in the month, at the third ASEAN + Civil Society Conference (ACSC III) held in Singapore, over 200 participants from civil society organisations and trade unions from across Southeast Asia called upon the leaders of ASEAN to postpone the signing of the ASEAN Charter until concrete steps had been taken to resolve the political crisis in Burma in accordance with basic human rights standards.  However, rather than ASEAN’s leaders using the Charter signing process to gain concessions from Burma, more concern seems to have been shown towards appeasing Burma’s Prime Minister, Thein Sein, with the cancellation of scheduled meetings during the Summit with the UN Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. 

With the signing of the Charter now complete, the onus falls upon the national parliaments of ASEAN’s member countries to delay ratification of the Charter until meaningful progress has been made within Burma.  The Philippine President Gloria Arroyo yesterday indicated that the Philippine Congress would rise to the challenge, and refuse to ratify the ASEAN Charter unless Burma commits itself to restoring democracy and releasing Aung San Suu Kyi.  It is now up to the other national parliaments within ASEAN to follow suit.    

Yet it is not only on the issue of Burma where civil society is now looking towards national parliaments to flex their democratic muscle.  It is also the job of the parliamentarians to seek the views of the citizens they claim to represent before deciding on whether to ratify the Charter.  Such engagement is something that ASEAN has singularly failed to do during the Charter drafting process, with no copy of the Charter even being made public prior to its signing yesterday.      

It was an Eminent Persons Group, set up by ASEAN in 2006 to provide recommendations on the Charter, which stated that ASEAN needed to “shed its image of being an elitist organisation”, and strengthen “the sense of ownership and belonging among its people”.  Yet the very process of drafting the Charter has shown that ASEAN is not yet ready to ditch its old way of doing things. 

Inevitably, the resultant Charter is state-centred rather than people-centred.  The principles of “non-interference” and “decision by consensus” retain their pre-eminence, while references to people-centred principles such as human rights and democracy are left deliberately vague.  Equally, the mechanisms and institutions that could lead ASEAN to take meaningful action on issues such as human rights are left as nothing more than empty vessels.  For example, in establishing an ASEAN human rights body, no mention is made of the basic elements necessary for an independent and effective body (such as the appointment of independent experts with an investigative mandate) or the timeframe for its establishment. 

National parliaments must therefore see the ratification process as an opportunity to succeed where ASEAN has failed, and to engage the people of ASEAN on a Charter that claims to represent their interests.  Only by doing this can parliamentarians be confident that this is a Charter for the people rather than a Charter for the elites of ASEAN.   

The decision was also taken by the 200 representatives of the above-mentioned ACSC III to draft an alternative ASEAN People’s Charter which aims to embody the shared values and collective aspirations of the peoples of the region.  This should provide a useful point of reference for the parliamentarians of ASEAN who will be deciding whether the Charter put before them is worthy of ratification.       

For more information, please contact Anselmo Lee, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA, at [email protected] ; or Daniel Collinge, Consultant on ASEAN Advocacy at FORUM-ASIA, at [email protected] ; or Pokpong Lawansiri, Southeast Asia Programme Officer at FORUM-ASIA, at [email protected] .