Thursday, August 23, 2007

ASEAN Saga for Solidarity Continues

40th Ministerial Meetings in Manila open new horizons for the region

More than two weeks after the 40th ASEAN Ministerial Meetings (AMM) concluded, editorial and opinion columns of Philippine newspapers have not ceased assessing its achievements. Manila hosted the high-level ministerial meetings from July 29 to August 2 held at the heavily secured venue of the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). As has always been observed, such occasion would put the government into a frenzy of "beautification" program weeks before the event. Squatters lining up the shoulder of highways from international airports are relocated, shanties painted with lively colors and idle plots landscaped. In one article, such measures were criticized by housing rights activist groups as being part of a "culture of self-deception."

Yet despite the criticisms, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo confidently delivered the keynote at the AMM's opening ceremony on July 30 in which she stressed the theme of "one caring and sharing community." In the audience were foreign ministers, special envoys, senior and officials from 26 countries and the European Union. In her speech, President Arroyo highlighted the advances of the ASEAN since its founding in Bangkok in 1967. She defined the vision of an ASEAN community as one that is not only based on economic integration but one anchored on social justice and the alleviation of poverty in the region as well.

While acknowledging the growing complexity of global conditions that could hamper such goals, President Arroyo affirmed ASEAN's important role in the "transformation of (our) region and the world." The need to capitalize on political and geographical relations with East Asia was pointed out as a vital element to the forging of a greater Asian community.

With the target for a full ASEAN Community set for 2015, President Arroyo urged the member states and its dialogue partners to sustain what has so far been achieved in the last 40 years of the organization's existence. The declaration of the ASEAN Charter that was issued during the ASEAN Summit in Cebu City held in January this year was noted as the outcome of the region's desire for integration. Yet given the diversity of Southeast Asia nations and cultures, such integration may not be as smooth as it has been envisioned. In this context, the mention of a Southeast Asian's "shared history" has once again brought on the comparison with the EU's long integration process--difficult but still possible.

The 5-day Manila AMM thus witnessed a strengthened call for unity. Many of the considered highlights of the meetings were also viewed as historic firsts. The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was given special attention in the Six-Party Talks of foreign ministers and special envoys. In a separate panel, the need to secure the region as a nuclear weapons free zone was addressed in a commission called the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) that formulated a 5-year plan of action.

The rights and welfare of migrant workers were also taken up as one of the region's urgent concerns. Two major documents were drawn up to advance and protect the rights and welfare of migrant workers. One of the statements provides for a 'sanctuary' for ASEAN nationals finding themselves in a crisis situation. An ASEAN national living in any ASEAN member state may now seek refuge or assistance in any ASEAN missions. The implication of such a provision for migrant workers, particularly, domestic helpers who are most vulnerable to abuses has been lauded.

However, among the issues taken up in the AMM, the concern for the human rights posed a brief impasse. With the proposal in the ASEAN Charter to include establishing a human rights committee to monitor violations and possibly sanction member countries came the strong objection of Myanmar. Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were also noted as having expressed resistance to the human rights committee.

After the deliberations, what was announced however by Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, who chaired most of the meetings, was that a "consensus" has been achieved. Political analysts and commentators, however, were not eager to accept that such a "consensus" could be considered a milestone. The objections of Myanmar and other countries were seen as the result of how nations' individual histories may impede the process of building an ASEAN community.

Noted journalist Amando Doronila of Philippine Inquirer wrote in an editorial that Foreign Secretary Romulo's declaration that the ministers reached a "consensus" on the human rights committee is shortsighted. The use of the word "consensus," Doronila argues in his article, is simply a semantic vagueness. More than anything else, it is ans evasion of resolution that is often largely described as the ASEAN style of doing things. For Myanmar hence to agree in "principle," may not lead to any strategies that would operationalize the human rights provision.

Adrian E. Cristobal, a veteran journalist of the Manila Bulletin, on the other hand, wrote in his column that "non-interference" in another country's internal affairs, which has been hailed as ASEAN's trademark, may probably be the best deterrent to having a human rights commission for the ASEAN.

With the 5-day meeting officially ending with the ASEAN's chairmanship turned over to Singapore, more is expected to unfold in the November summit. Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo in accepting the new leadership predicts, as quoted an article by Veronica Uy: “The center of gravity of the world shift(ing) to Asia in this century.”

Technorati Tags: , , and .

Labels: , , ,