The Grey Chronicles


What’s the Fuss About the ASEAN Charter?

Long Way to the ASEAN Charter

Long Way to the ASEAN Charter

Today, 15 December 2008, is a red-letter day for the member-nations of the ASEAN: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. “The entry into force of the ASEAN Charter is a historic milestone for the organization, repositioning Asean to better meet the challenges of the 21st century,” according to Dr Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary General. It took two years between the mandate given to Eminent Persons Group to submit a blueprint for the Charter and the ratification of the Charter by the member-nations (Uy, 2008).

ASEAN LogoASEAN originated from the 1967 Bangkok Declaration of the five founding members: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. Over the forty years of its existence, from its humble beginnings on on 08 August 1967 during the Cold War, it transformed itself as a convenient forum between East Asian and Asia-Pacific issues, incorporated all the regions’ 10 states into a free-trade area and became the working model for East Asian integration (Ramos, 2008). The ASEAN region has a population of about 567.5 million, a total area of 4.5 million square kilometers, a combined gross domestic product of over US$1 trillion, and a total foreign trade of over US$ 1.4 trillion. (ASEAN, 2007).

ASEAN Charter

There are 13 Chapters, 55 Articles, and 4 annexes in the 53 pages of the ASEAN Charter. So what’s the fuss?

Roberts observed in 2005 that “in practice, intervention in the internal affairs of state is becoming more common in Southeast Asia, reflective of a growing fissure in the rules and norms of ASEAN.“ Thus, difficulty is seen that the ASEAN Way—consensus and gradualism—be strictly maintained.

Furthermore, Katsumata (2007) described it as “talk big and act modestly—repeatedly announced readiness to pursue agenda items; however, took few substantial actions in terms of implementation.”

Minn Kyaw Minn (2007) questioned the Preamble’s statement: “Adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and the protection of human rights and fundamental reforms.” which contradicts the present scenario. Of the ten member-nations, regimes in Thailand and Myanmar were installed unconstitutionally through military coups; Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are communist countries; Brunei is a benevolent but authoritarian monarchy; while free and fair democratic elections are only being held in the Philippines and Indonesia; while somewhat less freely in Malaysia, and Singapore.

Amnesty International [AI] (2008) lauded it as “the first Asia-Pacific regional treaty that .. . will legally oblige states to respect and protect human rights,” but:

“The provision for the establishment of the ASEAN human rights body offers no detail as to its nature, powers, composition or remit.”

AI proposed to set out ASEAN’s “establishment, composition and mandate of the ASEAN human rights body. ” Myanmar was used as a case study to illustrate the human rights challenges that ASEAN faces. AI then concluded that:

“A strong human rights body would be able to investigate human rights violations, analyze them in the context of international human rights law and standards, make clear recommendations as to what steps the state and ASEAN must take to remedy the situation and, if necessary, invoke the «serious breach» provision in the Charter and call for urgent action by the ASEAN Summit.”

While stating that one noteworthy development is the formalizing of the ASEAN Summit’s role, Ambassador Barry Dresker writing for The Strait Times (2008), cited three issues where the ASEAN fell short:

“the charter . . . codifies existing norms and maintains its historical identity as an inter-governmental organisation. . . . The decision to adopt the ‘ASEAN Way’, which prioritises agreement by consensus and the adoption of the lowest common denominator, means that its claim to become an increasingly rules-based organisation will remain just that.”

“no agreement was reached on the terms of reference for an ASEAN human rights body, even though the charter provides for such a body.”[Note: this is the main concern of Amnesty International.]

“Previously, ASEAN economic ministers had adopted the practice of allowing member states to agree on economic liberalisation agreements on the basis of the ’10 minus x principle’ or ‘2 plus x’. This meant that members could embark on cooperative initiatives at a pace faster than the rest. . . However, the charter adopts an ‘ASEAN minus x’ formula [which] gives each member a veto on new initiatives for regional cooperation.”

Of interest to the steel industry, the ASEAN Charter stipulates an entity associated with the organization to be established as the ASEAN Iron and Steel Industry Federation. The question remains: what happened to the Southeast Asian Iron and Steel Institute [SEAISI]?


Amnesty International (2008). The ASEAN Charter and Human Rights: Window of Opportunity or Window Dressing? London: Amnesty International, July 2008. pp. 1-4. back to text

ASEAN Secretariat (2007). Media Release: ASEAN Leaders Sign ASEAN Charter. Singapore: Association of Southeast Asian Nations 20 November 2007. back to text

ASEAN Secretariat (2008). The ASEAN Charter .Jakarta: Association of Southeast Asian Nations, January 2008. pp. 1-53. back to text

Desker, Barry (2008). Where the ASEAN Charter comes up short. Singapore: The Straits Times, 18 July 2008. back to text

Katsumata, Hiro (2007). The ASEAN Charter Controversy: Between Big Talk and Modest Actions. IDSS Commentaries 121/2007. Singapore: S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, 15 November 2007. back to text

Minn Kyaw Minn (2007). A Paradoxed Charter Of The ASEAN Derkeiler News Groups. 16 November 2007. back to text

Ramos, Fidel V. (2008). The ASEAN Charter and East Asia Integration. Keynote Speech at the International Conference on the Implications of the ASEAN Charter for East Asian Integration. Pasay: , 12 March 2008. back to text

Roberts, Christopher (2005). The ‘ASEAN Charter’: A Crossroads for the Region? IDSS Commentaries 60/2005. Singapore: Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, 01 September 2005. back to text

Uy, Veronica (2008). Asean Charter to enter into force Dec 15. Manila:, 09 December 2008. back to text

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