11/20/2007, 00.00
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Asean’s common charter, a triumph of “modest expectations”

With the aim of lending greater international power to the south east Asian nation block from the outset the mini-constitution undermines its own credibility: it provides for a Human Rights Watchdog, by the violating countries – such as Myanmar – cannot be punished. The principal of “non-interference” is reconfirmed.

Singapore (AsiaNews) – The triumph of “modest expectations”.  This is how Asian analysts commented yesterday on the signing of the new Common Charter by leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), a charter which beyond its creation of a free trade area, aims to lend greater international credibility to the Asian group.  But the first declarations seem to undermine its intent.  One of the principal points of what is defined as a mini-constitution being the institution of a regional watchdog for Human Rights. Myanmar also voted in favour of the charter, a country well known for its systematic violation of freedom and fundamental rights. 

Positive aspects

The Charter which now must be ratified by individual member nations, in theory ends four decades of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations being simply a talking shop whose leaders meet twice a year, giving it the legal teeth to negotiate with other international bodies and be held accountable for any deal. It also enshrines core values, including the need for good governance, democracy, a nuclear-free region, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ASEAN charter sets out a common set of rules for negotiations in trade, investment, environment and other fields. It aims to turn Southeast Asia into a single market and production base with a free flow of goods, services, investment and capital. The Common Charter also condemns nuclear arms in the region, banning all weapons of mass destruction and all changes of regime against the Constitution.  It will enter into effect 30 days after its ratification by all members. 

Negative aspects

Greg Torode, of South China Morning Post, notes that the 10 member nations vary greatly among themselves: Asean's reach includes the world's biggest Muslim country (Indonesia), two of the world's last remaining Communist Party-ruled states (Vietnam and Laos), an old-style military junta (Myanmar), and both a constitutional and an absolute monarchy (Thailand and Brunei). If on the one hand this may be a resource, on the other hand it will also continue to paralyse any of the block’s initiatives.  Decisions in fact, will continue to be made according to member’s consensus, rather than by vote.  The principal of “non-interference” by any one member state in the affairs of another member state has also been re-confirmed. A motivation that was recently used to explain ASEAN’s position regarding the Burmese crises.

In the Charter members commit themselves to “promoting and protecting the freedom and fundamental rights of man”.  But all of the coercive measures originally set out to reign in a ‘recalcitrant’ member, such as sanctions and suspension, have been cancelled on the back of pressure from former Burma.   

The Asean summit closes tomorrow and on the same day the East Asia summit begins, gathering together 10 ASEAN nations and their 6 special partners (China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand).


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