The Solidarity for Asian Peoples' Advocacies (SAPA) is an open platform for consultation and coordination among various Asian civil society organizations engaged in action, advocacy and lobbying at the level of inter-governmental processes and organizations. Currently, there are four Working Groups in SAPA: Working Group on ASEAN (WG-ASEAN), Working Group on the UN Human Rights Mechanisms (WG-UNHR), Working Group on Migration and Labor (WG-ML), and Working Group on North East Asia (WG-NEA).
The SAPA WG on ASEAN, with more than 100 civil society organizations, national and regional organizations as members, works specifically on ASEAN advocacy. It has invested time and energy to engage the ASEAN Charter building process. More specifically, we have made three formal submissions to the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on the ASEAN Charter – on the Political-Security Pillar (EPG consultation, Ubud, Bali/17 April 2006), on the Economic Pillar (EPG consultation, Singapore/28 June 2006), and on the Socio-Cultural Pillar and Institutional Mechanisms (Meeting with Ambassador Rosario Manalo, Special Adviser to Mr. Fidel V. Ramos, EPG Member for the Philippines, Manila/10 November 2006). These submissions were widely consulted among members of the SAPA WG on ASEAN, and have been finalized in workshops prior to the interfaces with the EPG. We reiterated the main elements of these submissions in a letter to the EPG on 24 November 2006. We would like to submit these submissions and the letter of reiteration for the reference of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Outside the submissions, we participated in the only regional consultation held by the High Level Task Force (HLTF) on the drafting of the ASEAN Charter in March 2007 in Manila, re-emphasizing the main points already contained in our previous submissions. Aside from the regional consultations that the SAPA WG on ASEAN worked hard to intervene in, the different network members also initiated national processes in 2006 and 2007 to help introduce ASEAN to civil society, inform them of the Charter that was being drafted, share our analysis as well as get the perspectives of different groups from the different ASEAN countries we were able to reach. We would also like to submit for the reference of the Committee the SAPA Working Group on ASEAN's Analysis of the ASEAN Charter drafted in November 2007.
In the Philippines, we co-organized with local groups various consultative processes since 2006, including thematic workshops (esp. on human rights and migrants advocacy) held not only in Manila but also in different key cities in the Visayas and Mindanao. It is after these consultations that an Informal Philippine Working Group on ASEAN has been formed.
In this hearing, we would like to reiterate the main points of our critique of the ASEAN Charter, and humbly wish that these be considered in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' deliberations on the matter.
The Charter drafting had been kept away from broad public access and scrutiny, making difficult any engagement in the process. The Charter was signed on 20 November 2007during the 13th Leaders Summit in Singapore, but it was only on 7 November, when a copy of the final draft adopted by the High Level Task Force on the drafting of the ASEAN Charter was leaked to the media, that the Charter finally became known to the public. We are happy to note that the Philippines did the most number of public consultations, two during the EPG process, and hosting the regional HLTF consultation with civil society. Still, these had limited reach.
The Charter is a disappointment, falling short of what is needed to establish a "people-centered" and "people-empowered", or the officially-preferred "people-oriented" ASEAN. The Charter reaffirms a government-centric ASEAN, defining rules of engagement for Members, and institutionalizing age-old values of consensus and non-interference. However, even here it lacks clear mechanisms for dispute settlement, accountability and redress. While the bodies themselves are given mandate, the details are not to be found in the Charter, raising concerns that leaving them to the ministerial bodies and instruments of ASEAN would dilute such mandate. Good offices, conciliation and mediation may be resorted to, but the default for unresolved conflict is still the ASEAN Summit. Considering the long years that the leaders have managed to ignore or dodge urgent but controversial issues in the region, undefined dispute mechanisms that are eventually settled politically hardly gives confidence that disputes will get speedy and proper resolution at all.
The Charter talks about a people-oriented ASEAN, and upholds consultation and consensus as basic principles in decision-making. Yet the Charter does not provide clear mechanisms for transparency and participation, and does not recognize engagement and interaction with non-state actors and civil society. There is not a single mention of engagement with citizens and civil society (except in the context of the ASEAN Foundation), or the means by which citizens and civil society can access much less influence decisions and processes of the ASEAN. The right and mechanism for public access to information held by ASEAN, a key building block for informed participation, is not found in the Charter. The Charter is also silent about how ASEAN's operations can be subject to independent scrutiny.
Other missing elements include the non-mention of migrant labor which makes up a substantial portion of labor flows in the region. There is also limited reference to gender and women's rights, confined as it is in the selection of the Secretary General and two of the four Deputies. Other issues not fully addressed by the Charter are internal conflicts, asylum seekers, and indigenous peoples. Considering how pervasive and critical these issues are in the region, a Charter that does not equip ASEAN to deal with them is regrettable.
The inclusion of human rights in the Charter's preamble and statement of principles, and the creation of the human rights body is a milestone for ASEAN. It is regrettable however that the Charter leaves this Article incomplete, with the body's operation still to be defined according to the terms of reference to be determined by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, which is another political gathering.
Finally, the Charter fails to celebrate the plurality of ASEAN economic experiences and recognize its Members' successes based on heterodox policy mixes, by explicitly enshrining in the Charter principles a market-driven economy. The desire for a Single Market and production base should not be construed as exclusively dependent on liberalization, but should be treated as an attempt to learn from how the more successful ASEAN members were able to do it without yielding everything to the market, and to build the capacities of other members in the spirit of genuine regional solidarity.
The market-oriented language of the Charter expresses its bias for the economic project in the region, without recognition that this may be in conflict with the social and economic justice that the Charter is also supposed to uphold. The centrality of redistribution and economic solidarity to the goals of poverty eradication, social justice and lasting peace, is not acknowledged. Furthermore, the market orientation betrays the preference for a "one-size fits all" economic policy of trade and financial liberalization, failing to recognize the heterodox economic thinking that formed the basis of economic successes in the region in the past, including a strong social protection element in economic development, significant role by the state in industrial and development policy, and redistributive mechanisms such as land reform. The market driven approach, with its underlying norm of competition, masks the importance of regional cooperation, such as the promotion of public investment through regional support mechanisms or special funds to assist other members in the spirit of solidarity, cooperation, and regional redistribution.
The SAPA Working on the ASEAN has by far not given any categorical position on whether or not to support or oppose the ratification of the Charter. We note however that in a previous consultation with Philippine groups, while they applaud positive elements in the ASEAN Charter, particularly the provision on the ASEAN human rights body, the majority of the groups find it difficult to support the Charter as a whole because of the foregoing criticisms.
What is clear is the consensus to popularize our critique of the Charter, and to engage available processes to continue pushing for specific advocacies contained therein, including for instance in the drafting of the ASEAN Community Blueprints and the Terms of Reference for the ASEAN Human Rights Body, as well as the establishment of an ASEAN Instrument on Migrant Workers. We have also initiated a process of national and regional consultations to draft an ASEAN People's Charter to more clearly express our vision, critique, demands and undertakings towards the building of an ASEAN Community we can aspire to.