Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Asean Charter: A Human Rights Whitewash?

Burmese Rep going against the grain with Asean - Dec 2008

The Irrawaddy News

The new Asean charter will do little to improve the regional grouping’s human rights reputation as long as Burma continues to dictate the agenda

ONE Caring and Sharing Community”—that is how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), in its newly launched charter, envisions itself some four decades after its creation on August 8, 1967.

This is probably a far cry from the self-image that the leaders of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines—the bloc’s five original members—had in mind when they first joined forces during one of the most incendiary periods of the Cold War era.

At the time, the governments running these countries were more interested in preventing the spread of communism, bolstering nationalist sentiment and building up their economies than in showing their citizens how much they cared.

Much has happened since then. The original members of the bloc have witnessed the end of a war that consumed Indochina and left a tragic legacy in Cambodia; been through a period of breakneck economic growth (followed by a traumatic collapse and painstaking recovery); and evolved, albeit erratically, toward somewhat more accountable forms of governance.

But perhaps the most significant development has been Asean’s expansion to include Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia. It now covers an area roughly half the size of China, with a population to match.

On the surface, all of this bodes well for the grouping’s future. But Asean’s drive to encompass virtually all of Southeast Asia has come at a price, as the newer members, especially those that joined after 1997 (Brunei became a member in 1984 and Vietnam in 1995), are significantly less developed, both economically and politically.

With the introduction of the new charter, however, Asean hopes to accelerate its integration by putting it on a similar legal footing to the European Union, making it, in the words of the association’s secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, “more rules-based and more people-oriented.”

But Asean’s reluctance to act on its own rules may be the greatest obstacle to realizing its long-term goal of establishing an EU-style union. Critics charge that the bloc’s longstanding policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states—enshrined in the charter alongside “the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, [and] respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”—will continue to serve as an excuse to do nothing, even in the face of blatant violations.

Underlining Asean’s lack of will in enforcing acceptable norms of behavior among its members was its failure to respond effectively to egregious abuses perpetrated by Burma in late 2007, at the very moment Asean was preparing to make a binding commitment to transform itself from a regional assemblage of ruling elites into a “people-oriented” community.

The charter officially came into effect last year on December 15, but was ratified at the 13th Asean Summit in Singapore on November 20, 2007—less than two months after Burma’s military regime moved to crush the largest popular protests against its rule in nearly two decades.

At the time of the junta’s crackdown on massive monk-led demonstrations, Asean broke with its customary reticence about the affairs of its members to express “revulsion” at the bloodshed. In an official statement, nine of the bloc’s 10 foreign ministers said they were “appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used” on crowds, causing hundreds of casualties.

Much of this consternation undoubtedly stemmed from the likely consequences for Asean’s efforts to raise its standing in the international community. Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo, speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York at the time of the crackdown, put it bluntly: “Our credibility is at stake; our collective reputation has been besmirched. Unless we put things right, and set Myanmar [Burma] to a new course, we will all be affected and dragged down with Myanmar.”

This sudden recognition of collective responsibility was short-lived, however. Ahead of the Singapore summit in November, Burma—backed by Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos—succeeded in blocking the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, from delivering a briefing on the country’s situation to a gathering of Asean and other Asian leaders.

Ironically, Asean’s eagerness to introduce its historic charter may have helped to lift the Burmese regime out of the hot seat. Instead, it found itself in the driver’s seat, controlling not only Burma’s restive population, but also a group of regional leaders determined to savor their moment of self-congratulation.

In subsequent months, there was little to suggest that Asean was prepared to become more serious about tackling human rights abuses in Burma and elsewhere in the region.

Then, in May 2008, the grouping saw an opportunity to redeem itself by taking a leading role in the humanitarian effort in the Irrawaddy delta, which had been hit by
Cyclone Nargis, the most devastating natural disaster in the country’s history.

By forming the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), a relief-coordinating body that also includes United Nations agencies and the Burmese regime, Asean sought to demonstrate that it was capable not only of playing a responsible role in a major crisis, but also of bringing the junta into the international fold.

On July 21, the same day that Burma officially endorsed the charter, the TCG released the Post Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) report to provide prospective donors with a credible evaluation of the humanitarian needs in the delta. In keeping with the TCG’s policy of depoliticizing the relief effort, the PONJA report made no reference to the Burmese regime’s highly controversial initial response to the disaster, which delayed a full-scale aid operation by several weeks. Instead, it highlighted the junta’s status as an equal partner in international efforts to assist survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

Any expectation that the regime’s newfound respectability would lead to an improvement of its human rights record was soon dashed, however. In the weeks and months leading up to the enactment of the Asean charter, the junta resumed its unfinished business from the previous year, sentencing scores of pro-democracy and free-speech activists to lengthy prison sentences for their part in the 2007 protests. This time, Asean opted to remain silent about the crackdown.

In December, a breakdown in the rule of the law paralyzed Thailand and became an obstacle to Asean’s desire to present itself as an organization that has come of age. The postponement of the 14th annual Asean Summit due to the political unrest in Thailand, however, was just a minor stumble for a grouping that has yet to find an effective way of dealing with Burmese intransigence on human rights issues.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Asean charter is its inclusion of an article calling for the creation of a commission responsible for “the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” which critics say is doomed to irrelevance because it will have no powers of enforcement. Unless Asean is able to make this human rights commission work effectively, there is a danger that the charter will merely end up institutionalizing the association’s past failures.

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