Asean forges ahead
The 13th Asean Summit has just concluded in Singapore. As the ten Asean leaders celebrated the 40th anniversary of the organisation's founding, it turned a momentous page in its journey towards an Asean identity. The leaders signed the historic Asean Charter on November 20, altering the organisation into a rule-based entity. The charter will provide the basis for legal and institutional framework, which the leaders hope shall contribute towards peace, progress and prosperity of the region. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as host chairman of the summit, hoped that the charter shall deepen regional integration process and remain relevant.
Asean was established in 1967 by five non-communist nations -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore. Over the years five more -- Brunei Darusalam (1984), Vietnam (1995), Lao PDR and Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999) -- joined the organisation, raising the total membership to ten. The Asean region has a population of over 570 million spread over 4.5 million square kms with a combined GDP of over $700 billion and total trade of more than $850 billion.
Interestingly, the association did not have a charter so far. It was set up through the "Asean Declaration" signed by five foreign ministers in Bangkok on August 8, 1967. Until the signing of the declaration, the countries of the region were caught up in petty disputes distracting them from the task of nation building.
It was around that time that the leaders of four countries -- Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia -- realised that the time had come for them to close their ranks or else their future would be mired in turmoil and confrontation. The alternative for them was to remain balkanised and pursue their limited national interest playing into the hands of the external vested powers. They recognised that their fragmented economies had little chance of expansion individually from the onslaught of powerful economies around them unless they pooled their untapped potentials and defended themselves against the negative influences from outside the region.
Wisdom, sagacity and foresight of the four foreign ministers -- Adam Malik (Indonesia), Narciso Ramos (Philippines), Tun Abdul Razak (Malaysia), and Thanat Khoman (Thailand) -- playing golf in the Bang Saen Beach of Thailand produced the historic "Asean Declaration" in August 1967. Singapore's Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam later joined the four leaders to sign the declaration. The aims of the organisation were two-fold -- cooperation in the economic, social, cultural, and other fields, and promotion of regional peace and stability and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.
Forty years down the line, when the countries of the region have gone on to achieve significant economic and political clout, the ten heads of states and governments got together last week to sign the charter and give the organisation a legal personality and codify the key principles and goals of Asean. The charter with its 13 Chapters, 55 Articles and 4 Annexes was drafted by representatives of all the ten member states and is designed to meet the challenges of the 21st century and make Asean an undisputed regional player of the Asia-Pacific region.
The motto of Asean will be: One Vision, One Identity, One Community. Clearly, the member states have consciously agreed to submit themselves to the principles of the sssociation. In fact it shall not be an association of nations now -- Asean shall become a supra-national institution, if it succeeds in carrying forward it objectives.
Dialogue Partner states of Asean and inter-governmental organisations may appoint and accredit ambassadors to Asean. The member countries too shall appoint permanent representatives (ambassadors) to the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta. The secretary general of Asean shall hold the rank of a minister, which will facilitate his access to the heads of state and governments of the member states and also with other non-member states. The legal personality of Asean has fundamentally upgraded its diplomatic status -- making it comparable with the European Union.
The charter, enumerating the purpose of the organization, declares that it will maintain peace and stability, resolve all disputes amicably, enhance regional resilience, keep the region free of nuclear weapons and strengthen peace-oriented values in the region. It goes on to state that it shall create a single market in which there is free flow of goods, services and investments, and facilitated movement of people and labour. The desire to create an "Asean Economic Community" is inevitably the most significant step the leaders have decided upon.
It further emphasises the need to alleviate poverty and strengthen democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedom. In short it touches all aspects of human development making the organisation more people-oriented.
What is extraordinary is Article 20 which states: "Decision-making in Asean shall be based on consultation and consensus." There is no requirement of unanimity for making decisions, as is the case with the Saarc charter. This procedure will release the organisation from being hamstrung. The principle of "consensus" will give it the necessary flexibility to take decisions that are needed to move the organisation forward. The unanimity principle, on the contrary, makes inter-governmental organisations morbid and sterile.
The summit also signed three other documents -- The Declaration on the Asean Economic Blueprint; Asean Declaration on Environmental Sustainability; and Asean Declaration on the 13th Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 3rd Conference of Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP) to the Kyoto Protocol.
There were some distractions however. The issue of Myanmar threatened to undermine the achievements of this historic summit. UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari was scheduled to brief the leaders on his recent visit to Myanmar. But that was put off after Myanmar objected saying that the situation in Myanmar was a domestic affair of Myanmar. Singapore's Prime Minister however said that the Asean family will help Myanmar in its reconciliation process.
Despite the distractions, Asean seems confident and determined to march forward. The past history of forty years has demonstrated without any doubt that these ten nations can indeed become a politico-economic powerhouse to be reckoned with in the coming decades. No wonder the Asean partners include giant economies like the EU, US, China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia.
We in South Asia, with a fifth of the humanity and immense potentials, could probably learn a few lesson from Asean and emulate them in our own organization, Saarc.
Mahmood Hasan is a former Ambassador and Secretary.