The Making of the ASEAN Charter

The Making of the ASEAN Charter

Author(s): Tommy Koh, Rosario G Manalo, Walter Woon

ISBN:           9789812833907

Publisher:  World Scientific Publishing

Year:           2009

Price:          £40.00

Reviewed by Dr. Richard Burchill, Director of Admissions and Recruitment, University of Hull, UK.

The ASEAN Charter came into force in December 2008 and has already been the subject of widespread discussions.  The Charter is significant for it marks a substantial development in the means and mechanisms for regional cooperation in Southeast Asia.  ASEAN’s existence dates back to 1967 with the Bangkok Declaration signed by the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines Singapore, and Thailand.  The Declaration committed the states to further cooperation among themselves for the purposes of ensuring security for the region.  Since that time ASEAN has grown to ten members states and the organisation has been active in furthering regional cooperation in a range of areas.  The idea, and then adoption, of the ASEAN Charter is a major step in ASEAN’s development as it provides a legal treaty setting out the framework, structure, purposes, principles and obligations for the members of the organisation.  Prior to this most ASEAN regional cooperation was based on declarations and understandings of a more political nature with a conspicuous absence of formal institutional structures at the regional level.  What the Charter has brought about is a more legalised approach to regional cooperation.  This move to the legal has been seen as necessary for ASEAN to address the demands of globalisation and to ensure the regional body can be a relevant force in the future for the region.  Central to making ASEAN fit for the future is the creation of a more robust institutional framework alongside a range of expressed purposes and principles that form the basis of obligations for the member states.  All of this comes together, hopefully, to make ASEAN more relevant to the people of Southeast Asia.  The regional project so far has been more about governments and elites and has not had what could be considered a more grassroots grounding.   The editors express their hope that ‘in time, the ASEAN Charter will play a significant and positive role in the lives of the 550 million people who live in Southeast Asia.’ (p. xxiii)

The work under review contains contributions from the members of the High Level Task Force for the Drafting (HLTF) of the ASEAN Charter.  There are separate contributions from the national representative from each ASEAN state along with contributions from the Chair of the HLTF, the Secretary General of ASEAN and the Special Assistant to the ASEAN SG.  The Charter process formally began with the 2005 ASEAN Summit where the Heads of State declared their commitment to the creation of an ASEAN Charter.  This led to the appointment of an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) made of up a representative from each Member state.  These representatives were former government officials or active participants in ASEAN over the years who served as representatives of the member states in a sort of personal capacity.  They were given a good deal of space to come up with bold and visionary proposals for a Charter.   The EPG Report was adopted by the ASEAN Summit of January 2007.  This same summit gave the HLTF a mandate to draw up a Charter for approval by the member states within one year.  The HLTF occupied an interesting part in the Charter creation process.  The EPG had an opened ended task of developing ideas and possibilities that would influence the final version of the Charter; the terms ‘bold’ and ‘visionary’ are used extensively when talking about the EPG’s approach.  The HLTF had a much more practical and demanding mandate as their version of a draft Charter was the one to be considered and adopted by the member states.  The HLTF was an official body of ASEAN with the representatives first and foremost representing their official state position.  As the Charter had to be adopted within one year, the HLTF did not have the luxury of being able to postpone things for very long, they had to present a draft Charter that the Heads of State would accept without much debate or discussion.  This placed a good deal of pressure on the HLTF for as the editors explain ‘The process of actually translating … dreams and visions into practical reality requires much more than idealism and a magic wand.’ (p. xix)  The HLTF consisted of seasoned diplomats who have long been involved with ASEAN and who also had strong personal connections amongst themselves.  This resulted in a group that were able to see the bold and visionary dreams of the EPG while also being practical and realistic as to what was possible for making the ASEAN Charter an acceptable document to the member states.

Driving the Charter process was a realisation among the national leaders of the region of a ‘critical need for ASEAN to build a Charter if it is to secure the establishment of the ASEAN Community.’ (96)  This work is revealing regarding the widespread belief among the elites that ASEAN needed a new, legally based institutional structure for it to remain an effective institution.  ASEAN has long been held up as a successful regional arrangement that has ensured peace and security in the region through its own particular style and structure.  The lack of a formal institutional structure has been seen as one of the contributors to its success with a belief that the ASEAN way of doing things did not require formal institutions or processes that characterise other international organisations.  However, the contributors here make clear that ASEAN’s development had exposed its weaknesses and showed reform was needed (p. 82), as the organisation ‘could not cope with the complexity and intensity of current undertakings’ (pp. 4-5).  These current undertakings were testing the role and strength of ASEAN as a regional arrangement contributing to the development of the region.  It comes through clearly in this collection that ASEAN needed to formalise the regional arrangement with a legal instrument to provide an organisational framework.  While such a move is not all that dramatic given the widespread proliferation of regional arrangements with formal legal foundations, it is significant for ASEAN and a step in the evolution of the ASEAN way of conducting international relations.

The move to the Charter is, in many respects, a break from the past and marks a new era in the development of the regional arrangement. The drafting and adoption of the Charter came at an ‘opportune time’ with the member states recognised the need to transform ASEAN into ‘a regional entity that will serve as base, catalyst and motor for stronger cooperation and deeper integration among them while at the same time render it more relevant to its citizens’ (p. 37)..The connection between a formal institutional structure and the future of ASEAN highlights the need for ASEAN to be organised in a way that makes its more relevant to the people of the region.  The Charter is described as a ‘precious gift to the peoples of Southeast Asia’ (p. xv).  At the same time there is a more practical element to this in that ‘People must feel a sense of ownership and belonging to the ASEAN Community, and must be the direct beneficiary of and have their voices heard in the community-building process.’ (p. 85).  As ASEAN moves to the idea and practice of a regional community, a major part of the ongoing success of the Charter is going to be in the extent to which it facilitates and supports this community building process at all levels.  While ASEAN has been beneficial to the region and people of Southeast Asia, too few of them are aware of what is has accomplished (p. 118).  The contributions here firmly believe that the Charter will help to bridge the gap between the regional arrangement, government elites and the people in the region.

In making the regional arrangement more relevant for the people and societies of the region, the inclusion of some sort of human rights mechanism into the Charter was inevitable.  The discussion of human rights in the ASEAN context is a contentious issue and this is an area where the contributions here provide some interesting views.  There is clear recognition that the idea of ASEAN having a human rights mechanism at the regional level has been a taboo issue for a long time. (pp. 21, 89).  This point is clearly made and the idea that the matter of human rights was being discussed at a formal regional setting was a major change in how human rights are addressed in the region. The contributions are clear that this was one of, if not the most contentious part of the negotiations.  It is described as ‘the most explosive and tense of all’ (p. 7), as the ‘most sensitive, controversial and difficult subject’, (p. 14) and ‘the most challenging task’ which may have ‘derailed the whole process’ (p. 32).  The discussions about the human rights topic bring out the fact that there does exist strong differences on the issue within the region.  One commentator makes clear that ‘Some of our colleagues were assuming the role of champions of human rights and adopting a “holier than the Pope” approach.  Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones!’ (p. 33)  Even though the matter apparently almost had the delegates coming to ‘physical blows over it’  (p. 33), there were calls for caution and the HLTF worked with the Foreign Ministers to come to what is seen as a compromise in creating a monitoring body and not a strong oversight or judicial body.  The final compromise may be seen as too weak but this marks another major step in ASEAN’s involvement and contribution to the region.  By including the promotion and protection of human rights in the region, along with formal institutional mechanisms, it shows increasing recognition of the importance of human rights ‘for the general well-being of all citizens of the region, consistent with the notion of transforming ASEAN into a “people-orientated” organisation’ (p. 22).

The contributions go to great lengths to accentuate the positive aspects of the Charter.  Of course the Charter is not perfect and there will be critics saying more needed to be included.  What we learn from this collection is that what was included is what was possible in terms of diplomatic negotiations and agreement among the member states.  Of course there remains ambiguity and disagreement over exact meaning of terms and provisions, but this is a characteristic of any international legal agreement.  In the final analysis the Charter ‘reflects the prevailing regional realities’ and that the final product is ‘as bold and visionary as it can be so as to ensure compliance.  Pragmatism, ultimately, is the key word’ (pp. 24-25).  While the book tells us a great deal about the Charter process and the personalities involved it is certainly not a substantive academic study.  As the authors are experienced diplomats this cannot be expected.  The chapters included in this book are mainly personal reflections from the individuals involved with the HLTF; essentially, ‘a record of impressions of the drafting process’ (p. xx).  Each contribution give details and insights about the drafting process from a range of angles.  What is one of the more interesting contributions these chapters make is the variety of assessments put forth about ASEAN’s overall effectiveness before and after the Charter.  Plus it is also possible to glean the differing ideological/political positions of particular states with ASEAN.  And there is also a good deal of information about fruit and bathroom breaks!  The personal reflections make the book an enjoyable read even though it may be lacking in substance.  The personal reflections are valuable starting points for further research about ASEAN generally, the Charter process in particular, and about the changing context of regional organisation in Southeast Asia.  The work makes a valuable contribution to understanding the current evolution of ASEAN.

Suggested citation: 

Richard Burchill (2014). Review of “The Making of the ASEAN Charter” edited by Tommy Koh, Rosario G Manalo, Walter Woon, World Scientific Publishing, Vol. 7, no.12, Internet file: