Oct 18, 2012

ASEAN - Asean must be people-focused in order to succeed

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A weak draft Declaration on Human Rights threatens to derail progress towards full economic integration

With Asean leaders struggling to make the community anything but a people-centred organisation, alarm bells should be ringing in its citizens' ears. Since the Asean Charter came into force in 2008, member countries have used all sorts of excuses in their efforts to avoid compliance. This is not a good sign for the future success of the Asean Economic Community, which will launch in three years' time. Most Asean members continue to pay lip service to the concerns of their own citizens, while avoiding the question of their rights.

Cambodia, as the bloc's current chair, wants to ensure that the draft Asean Declaration on Human Rights (ADHR) is approved at next month's summit. Everything in the build-up to the summit has been geared towards this objective. But rights groups based in Asean have attacked the draft for not reflecting the kind of universal values that member countries have previously pledged to pursue and uphold.

The draft is undoubtedly substandard and should be delayed and reviewed. If passed, it will be a future cause of shame for the regional community.

Asean should take note of the recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. The EU provides a model of good practices and people-oriented policies that have been successful in helping achieve strong democracies and respect for human rights. So far these objectives are still elusive for Asean members.

We are on the brink of becoming an economically integrated region with free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour and capital. But what will be the use of this if 620 million people are denied protection from state-sponsored abuse?

This is the new dilemma facing the community. Asean is now more diverse than ever, and each member country is inclined to follow its own national interests rather than making sacrifices in order to forge a greater common objective. As such, it is more difficult than ever for Asean to achieve a consensus on the sensitive issue of its citizens' rights.

Meanwhile civil-rights groups are becoming more pragmatic in their demands - though they still have work to do on this. Some continue to set unrealistic benchmarks and retain a narrow-minded focus on their own concerns, without seeing the bigger picture. As a result, Asean leaders continue to dismiss their contributions to the debate on rights.

For the Asean grouping to become a true single community imbued with a unified spirit, its leaders must first share a common vision and objectives. How can they do this when some continue to oppress their own people beneath a veneer of democracy and decency? Given the rapid spread of universal human values in our globalised world, there is no place for complacency anymore. Asean's members have to move ahead and bridge the gaps that still exist in all spheres of their engagement - economic, political and social. It is a tall order, but Asean must forge ahead with the resilience and determination that has over the past 45 years transformed this organisation into the region's most important player.

Indeed, the time has come for Asean to recognise the role of civil society and rights groups. Asean leaders must engage them in a wider debate to find the best practical ideas for securing the rights of citizens.

The Asean Community will truly serve its people only when its leaders heed their voices. Otherwise Asean will remain a second-rate intergovernmental organisation.

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