Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THE YEAR IN ASEAN: The Charter, Trade Agreements, and the Global Economic Crisis

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THE YEAR IN ASEAN: The Charter, Trade Agreements, and the Global Economic Crisis

Article excerpt

In the past year, the mass media have highlighted three developments in Southeast Asia, which thus became the subjects of public attention. One was the start of the implementation of the new Charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly the establishment of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Another was the scheduled elimination on 1 January 2010 of tariffs on most goods traded among China and the six older, and more advanced and heavily trading, ASEAN members - Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand (the other ASEAN members are Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam). The third was the response of Southeast Asian countries to the regional impact of the global economic crisis.

The media spotlight on these developments has led the public to expect some dramatic, overnight changes in the region because of them. As an academic, I have sought to dampen such expectations, called for caution, and urged the media and the public to refrain from rash predictions and speculation. As the Americans say, "the jury is still out" on these three questions.

The ASEAN Charter

The drafting of the ASEAN Charter by a task force of senior ASEAN officials, its signing by the ASEAN leaders in November 2007, and its entry into force in December 2008 were significant for six reasons. For the first time, after forty years of existence, ASEAN has adopted a charter for itself, comprehensively placing it more firmly on a rules-based path.

If one looks closely at the Charter's contents, this is more than a matter of form. For the first time, the ASEAN countries have committed themselves in a formal document to norms having to do with the internal behaviour of states. As first enshrined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, norms for inter-state conduct had guided ASEAN and other countries related to it - the peaceful settlement of disputes, the rejection of the threat or use of force, and non-interference in the internal affairs of nations. This is important in itself, but the Charter goes beyond that. In it, the ASEAN countries have declared their aspiration for such goals as democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, good governance, constitutional government, and social justice.

The Charter seeks to expedite decision making in the association, more clearly defining responsibilities for it. It lays squarely on the shoulders of the ASEAN leaders the responsibility for arriving at decisions, including voting if necessary, to resolve issues on which consensus cannot be reached at lower levels. It has established a Committee of Permanent Representatives resident in Jakarta to accelerate the process of decision making on many issues requiring member-states' agreement.

At the same time, and this is the fourth reason, the Charter seeks to cultivate among its members a "culture of compliance". It assigns to the ASEAN National Secretariats at the ministries of foreign affairs the tasks of coordinating the implementation of ASEAN decisions and agreements as well as promoting knowledge and awareness of ASEAN at home. It calls upon the Secretary-General to submit regular reports on compliance and non-compliance with ASEAN agreements and decisions to the leaders, who would be expected to act on them. The Charter calls for the inclusion of dispute-settlement mechanisms in all ASEAN agreements in addition to the one already in place for the economic agreements. It reiterates the aim of the ASEAN Economic Community as the creation of a "single market and production base", re-affirming ASEAN's commitment to regional economic integration.

It seeks to clarify the diplomatic privileges and immunities of ASEAN Secretariat officials and of the permanent representatives and their staffs in Indonesia and in other ASEAN countries in accordance with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations or the national law of the ASEAN country concerned. …

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