ASEAN Charter to turn region into community

A Straits Times report on the ASEAN Civil Society Conference, where the upcoming ASEAN Charter was discussed.

ASEAN Charter to turn region into community – Duo involved in drafting of charter say it will bolster grouping’s ability to assert itself
The Sunday Times – October 28, 2007
Shefali Rekhi, Assistant Foreign Editor

PRINCIPLES of good governance, rule of law and democracy will be enshrined as ‘aspirational goals’ in the ASEAN Charter due to be signed at the grouping’s summit of leaders to be held in Singapore next month.

A new dispute settlement mechanism – with ‘teeth’ – will also be created and the charter will also recommend the formation of a new human rights body.

These insights into the new charter were provided by Singapore Solicitor-General Walter Woon and ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong at a conference yesterday.

The final document, billed as ASEAN’s new Constitution, will start the process of transforming the region into a community and bolster its ability to assert itself, according to the two speakers.

The signing will be a major milestone for the grouping after 40 years of its existence, giving it a legal identity and enabling it to facilitate negotiations and transactions – globally and regionally.

The duo, who were involved in the drafting of the charter, noted that the ASEAN principle of operating via consensus is being retained, although there was discussion on the notion of deciding by majority vote.

The charter will have to be ratified by each member country but the mechanism for doing so has been left to member states and each could opt to do it through parliament, a referendum or in any other way deemed appropriate.

It was not clear if any timetable for the ratification of the charter had been set.

The charter will also be open to review though the timeframe for this process has not been set.

Professor Woon likened the final document to a ‘diplomatic camel’ created by a committee asked to ‘design a throughbred’.

‘But don’t underestimate the camel,’ he told the ASEAN Civil Society Conference held at the Regent Hotel here yesterday.

Non-governmental organisations, diplomats and observers from the region and beyond are participating in two-day discussions on the role of civil society groups, and ways to deepen and broaden the ASEAN community.

Prof Woon said: ‘It may not look pretty and it may have humps and lumps in the wrong places. But it will move and it is a better animal when it comes to rough terrain. We are convinced it will get us where we are going.’

He was clearly allaying concerns expressed by those who say that the final document has turned out to be a somewhat watered down version of what was expected.

At the conference, participants noted that decision-making based on consensus could lead to delays.

They also said that the charter will mark only the beginning of the process to create a human rights body with much to be accomplished to get its terms of reference in place.

But Mr Ong told the gathering that all matters needed to be settled in ‘an organic South-east Asian way’.

He said: ‘This is how it is. ASEAN cannot be faster than what is the instinctive nature of South-east Asia.

‘We have to evolve diplomacy to a manner comfortable to all of us. We cannot afford to go against our region.’

The charter ‘is not a perfect document but it is a very good start’, he told the audience and maintained that it would be reviewed and amended as crucial matters come up.

The two-day conference, organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, with support from the ASEAN Secretariat, continues today.

Discussions will be held on additional priorities of the Asean community and recommendations of the role to be played by civil society.

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