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COMMON RULES: A regional accord promises a closer, stronger community
THE Asean Declaration on Human Rights (ADHR) will be unveiled at the Asean Summit in Cambodia later this year. This will be the culmination of years of negotiations among Asean's disparate member states and various stakeholders within each member state.
This writer was invited to a workshop for media and bloggers in Jakarta over the last weekend to provide an update on the ADHR. Perhaps understandably given its recent history of political repression and its newfound democracy in the recent decade or so, Indonesians have been at the forefront in pushing the ADHR.
It is noteworthy that Asean member states have been making huge strides in the area of human rights even without the ADHR in recent years. None more so than Myanmar, long a pariah nation globally on account of its poor human rights record.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, eminent Thai commentator on Asean affairs and veteran observer of developments in Myanmar, waxes almost euphoric in suggesting that when that nation sets about doing something -- and it must be what that nation alone decides, not what outsiders urge on it (no matter how much these outsiders may want to now take credit for the latest Myanmar developments) -- it will be a trailblazer.
Kavi lost no time following the lifting of a 20-year ban on him visiting Myanmar to hop over across the border recently. He said the breathtaking impact of what Myanmar did already had a great bearing on Asean deliberations.
Myanmar, Kavi observed, had broken free of the Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) informal caucus within Asean when it comes to Asean deliberations of a political nature, such as over the ADHR. That has put pressure on Vietnam, long acknowledged as the leader in that caucus, to act and react.
Human rights may be as fundamental as apple pie, to borrow a common American analogy, but why the need to come up with an Asean declaration on such rights when there already exists the United Nations' Declaration on Human Rights that all nations accede to when they join the international organisation?
And is it not superfluous to have the ADHR when all Asean members have similar political rights already enshrined in their respective national constitutions and seem to be making progress in ensuring rights available in theory are turned real?
Not so, answered Kavi, when posed these questions. Asean, after all, is evolving quickly into a community in significant sense of that term. It is working towards being a community of nations not just in the economic sphere but also in the political/security and cultural areas by 2015.
The ADHR will be a worthy document in setting regional benchmarks towards commonly accepted norms and rules. And why should an Asean Community be something the 600 million people within Asean care about, especially given how the European Union (EU) seems to be sputtering lately?
For starters, Asean is not modelled along the lines of the EU. Given the EU's troubles, it may be a blessing that Asean aspires to be a community and not a union with ever closer political and economic integration impinging on national sovereignty.
Besides, Asean has shown that smaller national players can punch above their weight in the geopolitical scheme of things if they hang together as a group. The centrality of Asean in regional affairs has been assiduously cultivated, nurtured and strengthened such that stronger powers feel comfortable deliberating on wider regional concerns through the auspices of Asean.
Cambodia, the current chair of Asean, may not otherwise be hosting the likes of the Chinese president and possibly the American president as well at the Asean and East Asian summits later this year.
Much time was spent in the Jakarta workshop debating the merits or otherwise of Asean and its relevance in the daily lives of the people in it. Its relevance will increasingly be felt but perhaps it will only be noticed if Asean itself is not around.
Indonesian bloggers and others complained about the difficulty of getting their readers excited about Asean-related news. They should rise above their grumbles and help make Asean news as exciting as political and other news within their own respective nations.
Kavi has a fascinating repertoire of news and anecdotes about all the ins and outs of Asean deliberations and developments, with their rich and telling interplay of national interests and peculiarities. He made a hasty exit after lunch in Jakarta, for the Asean Secretariat.