As it celebrates its 41st anniversary on August 8, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) must strive to maintain, enhance and galvanise its credibility by using the complex channels and practices of multilateral diplomacy to cope with increasing regional and global challenges. It has to demonstrate that it can function as a formidable partner and competitor in the world arena.
With nearly 600 million people and a combined GDP of $1.2 trillion, the 10 member states are bound by geography, common objectives and shared destiny. As a group, the first purpose of Asean is to maintain and enhance peace, security and stability - and further strengthen peace-oriented values in the region.
Asean has already achieved crucial milestones in its institutional and legal development, especially with the adoption in 2007 of the Asean Charter, signed by all its members and ratified by seven of them, except Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. The Charter is expected to come into force when the Bangkok Summit is held in December this year under the theme ''Asean Charter for Asean Peoples.'' While not a constitution, the Charter (55 articles) will make Asean a more effective regional organisation, with clearer purposes and stronger legal foundations.
Credibility demands visibility and predictability. It also requires coherence and consistency in all fields of action. In 2008 it is more vital than ever for Asean to illustrate its diplomatic maturity through convincing facts. Asean has no other choice but to firmly persuade hesitant partners that the most important organisation of South-East Asia is not a talk-shop with somnolent gatherings, as critically described by some journalists, but a highly influential community of states capable of practicing a proactive diplomacy for advancing its collective interests.
It certainly requires a strong diplomatic corps able to negotiate, inform on Asean matters and represent its specific interests on the basis of solidarity. All Asean members shall appoint permanent representatives to Asean, with the rank of ambassador. Asean committees may be established in non-Asean countries, comprising heads of diplomatic missions of Asean member states. Such committees shall promote Asean's interests and identity in the host countries. Non-Asean countries may also appoint ambassadors to Asean. The first ambassador to this organisation was appointed by the USA. Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and Russia have recently made similar diplomatic commitments.
Asean has decided to press on with its Charter implementation without waiting for the last three member states to ratify it. Two high-level expert groups have been formed - the High-Level Panel for the Establishment of an Asean Human Rights Body and the High-Level Legal Experts Group to establish a dispute settlement mechanism. Asean will also have its Committee of Permanent Representatives in Jakarta. Strengthening the Asean Secretariat is also on the agenda.
Thailand at the helm
On July 25 Thailand assumed Asean's chairmanship for 18 months. This responsible mandate should be a historic occasion for a founder of Asean to set exemplary standards for implementing the Asean Charter and promoting diplomatic initiatives.
Thailand pledged to realise its commitments under the Charter, to revitalise the vision of people-centred community and to reinforce human development and security for peoples in the region. To promote Asean identity and a sense of belonging, Thailand has proposed 15 projects for implementation.
There is no diplomatic credibility without persuasive evidence. Once the Charter is in force, issues of compliance with the obligations of membership would be considered in different terms.
The Charter gives Asean legal personality, as an organisation with clear rights, immunities and privileges. This will help create a stronger sense of legal duty for all its members. This is an urgent objective to be achieved, as estimations show that only about 30 per cent of Asean's agreements and commitments have been honoured and implemented. An example will illustrate the topicality of this objective.
On July 26, 2005, in Vientiane, all 10 Asean members signed the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER). If this comprehensive legal instrument (36 articles and a long annex) does not come into force and is not put into effect without delay, Asean will continue to face dramatic tests. South-East Asia is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, and it is imperative to use legal mechanisms to properly co-ordinate and co-operate during disaster emergencies to provide immediate relief, assistance and rehabilitation to disaster victims. Therefore, finalising the ratification process and implementing AADMER should be an essential objective for all its parties.
If the obligations of the parties under the Agreement are not implemented, it would be in flagrant contradiction with one of the fundamental rules in the law of treaties: Pacta sunt servanda. It means that a treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith. A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to comply with a treaty.