Sunday, April 4, 2010

Is ASEAN biting off more than it can chew?

Judging from the number of countries that want to accede to Asean's 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), one can easily conclude that the 43-year-old grouping is gaining political clout in the international community. Altogether 27 countries, including the United States, have signed on to the regional code of conduct, which denounces the use of force and any attempt to interfere with domestic politics.

More countries are on the waiting list. Canada, the last Asean dialogue partner that has yet to sign the TAC, has recently begun negotiations with Asean for possible accession by the end of this year. The European Union signed the protocol for TAC accession last year pending the ratification of the Third Protocol by all signatories. This instrument permits international organisations whose members are only sovereign states to join. Within the Asean inner circle, it is an open secret that the ratification process will take months, if not years, to complete.

The First Protocol in 1987 enabled Papua New Guinea, the first country outside Southeast Asia, to sign the TAC, followed by the Second Protocol in 1988 that has opened the present floodgate for major powers to accede. Under the protocol, only the Asean High Contracting Parties can identify and consent to the accession of those non-Southeast Asian countries.

Last year, Asean made a U-turn after agreeing to include Turkey in the TAC community. Indonesia strongly opposed Ankara's diplomatic move at this juncture, fearing the negative consequences that could impact on Asean as a whole. Turkey's signing on, if it went as planned last year, would allow Ankara the right to block the EU's accession to the TAC, as it would be a party to the Third Protocol. Deep down, Indonesia fears that Turkey might use the TAC to increase its bargaining power for the latter's effort to join the EU, which has hit a snag.

Is Asean biting off more than it can chew? Obviously, that is the general sentiment prevailing at all echelons of Asean officialdom, even though they would never admit it. At the Asean Summit in Hanoi this Thursday and Friday, Asean leaders will approve guidelines for the TAC that will put the brakes on TAC accession. One of the key elements is the principle of a "flexible moratorium" placed on future membership. Truth be told, if the EU and Canada joined the TAC, that would leave Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal as the only remaining countries not on board the regional code of conduct.

Asean needs to contemplate now on the TAC's future and relevance. As signatories increase, Asean is gradually losing control. Turkey's accession was a case in point. At the same time, granted the increased global connectivity and shared universal values, norms and standards, several principles in the TAC could be the subject of further discussion and reviews. Otherwise, the 34-year-old regional code of conduct could be a stumbling bloc for Asean's desire to promote its global role in economic or financial, political or security as well as socio-cultural matters.

Furthermore, just look at the dilemma confronting the current Asean chair, Vietnam, in handling the engagement between the Asean leaders and the representatives of civil-society organisations (CSOs). Despite the positive pledge made last February at the 14th Asean summit in Cha-am by the Vietnamese leader, President Nguyen Minh Triet, who welcomed the idea of putting the interface into the Asean framework, the host eventually decided last month at the senior official meeting in Ho Chi Minh City to put on hold the whole experiment with CSOs.

The interface, which was held twice when Thailand was the chair, revealed the lack of trust on both sides. The CSO representatives viewed the Asean leaders as dictators wanting to suppress their people's role and voices, while the leaders thought the non-governmental stakeholders were troublemakers and wanted to embarrass them. Over half of the Asean leaders did not attend the second interface in October.

It is interesting to note that the host has scheduled a meeting between the Asean leaders and the representatives of the Asean Inter-parliamentary Organisation, one of the estimated 200 non-governmental organisations recognised by Asean, ahead of the opening ceremony. As such, the Vietnamese-style "interface" between both sides at the summit would be an informal gathering for 15 minutes, as it is not placed in between the opening and closing ceremonies.

Indeed, Vietnam has rather active community-based organisations as well as professional groups that could contribute to the ongoing process of transforming Asean into a people-centred grouping. With the proper encouragement of other new members such as Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam could have proceeded in that direction. Earlier discussions among representatives of Asean-based civil-society groups and Vietnam's counterparts yielded encouraging results. Unfortunately, they had no influence on the decision-making.

Furthermore, Asean as a whole has failed to respect the voices of the CSOs and the grass roots. During the inaugural meeting of the Asean Intergovern-mental Commission for Human Rights in Jakarta last week, Asean civil groups were unable to present cases of human-rights violations to the commission. The voices from civil-society groups sounded at times loud and fierce but the AICHR must find ways to take up these issues in the future, as they are real and matters of urgency.

For instance, victims comprising wives and relatives of the Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines as well as those senior citizens who suffered from the past impunity in Indonesia were at the Asean Secretariat to present their cases. It could have been a better start for the AICHR. Last week's failure has already discredited the AICHR, which is the principle organisation promoting and protecting human rights in Asean. Certainly, the AICHR has a limited mandate, but rejecting appeals directly from the victims is deplorable.

The AICHR plans to complete the terms of procedure for approval by the Asean foreign ministers in July. It is imperative that the AICHR takes into consideration the CSOs' views and contributions. Obviously, some of their recommendations could be too progressive, but there are practical elements as well. As a rule-based organisation, Asean would become irrelevant if its members continued to ignore the people's voices and outcries over injustice. By Kavi Chongkittavorn for The Nation, Bangkok

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