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  • The ASEAN Charter Ten Years On
  • Walter Woon (bio)

On 13 January 2007 the High Level Task Force (HLTF) on the Drafting of the ASEAN Charter held its first meeting on the sidelines of the Twelfth ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the Philippines. On 20 November 2007 this author had the honour to present the completed ASEAN Charter for signature by the ASEAN leaders at the Thirteenth ASEAN Summit in Singapore. The Charter was drafted in an inordinately short time—barely ten months elapsed between the first meeting in Cebu and the last meeting in Vientiane in October 2007.

The tight time frame for the drafting of the Charter meant that many things were fudged and left to be elaborated later. The aim was to get the building up and the façade nicely painted in time for the Summit, never mind that the plumbing was still in the process of being fixed. A decade on, ASEAN is still tinkering with the plumbing.

Boiled down to the essentials, the HLTF had three principal tasks: first, clothe ASEAN with a legal personality; second, establish a proper institutional framework; and third, ensure that there was a mechanism to enforce compliance with the multitudinous agreements, roadmaps, plans of action and declarations that sprouted like mushrooms after every ASEAN Summit and ministerial meeting.

The first task was a purely legal undertaking. The lack of a proper legal personality was a practical problem for ASEAN. Donors [End Page 245] who were inclined to give money had no one to give to. For decades, the ASEAN Secretariat stood in as the recipient. However, for various reasons this was not entirely satisfactory, especially from the point of view of some would-be donors. The solution was simply to declare that ASEAN, as an intergovernmental organization, had a legal personality. The reference to ASEAN as an intergovernmental organization was deliberate and crucial. From the start there was to be no hint of supra-nationality. The idea of an ASEAN Union was dropped from the outset. The member states of ASEAN mostly had acquired sovereignty within living memory, and for some, independence had been hard won with blood and treasure. They were not going to compromise that sovereignty for anything. There was no desire for a Southeast Asian superstate. This has not changed in the last ten years. Observers who make glib and uninformed criticisms about the slow pace of political and economic integration in ASEAN should bear this in mind.

The second task was to put ASEAN on a proper institutional footing. ASEAN was not founded as an organization. In conception, it was a mechanism for the foreign ministers of the five founding member states to meet regularly in order to foster trust in a volatile region beset by war and Great Power conflict.1 The organization developed in an ad hoc fashion over the course of time, evolving to meet new challenges and opportunities. As former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino put it, the institutions followed the substance.2 After four decades, it was felt that the "ASEAN Way" of making things up as the member states went along was no longer satisfactory.

New organs were set up. The ASEAN Summit remained at the top; suggestions that this should be renamed were rebuffed. The old ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) of foreign ministers morphed into the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) designed to organize the Summits (the AMM still meets annually as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting to discuss foreign affairs). Three Community Councils were set up to coordinate the activities of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community: the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC); the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). For the sake of efficiency, a Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) was also established and based in Jakarta.3

The Charter was supposed to put ASEAN firmly on the footing of a rules-based organization. Unfortunately, however, this was interpreted as requiring more rules. The CPR took on the role [End Page 246] of practically micro-managing the ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC) in the early years, even to the extent of overseeing human resource issues. One Permanent Representative (PR) told this author that the...


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