The ASEAN Charter

Two days ago, our RTB news showed our Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, HRH Prince Mohamed signing the ASEAN Charter with all the other ASEAN Foreign Ministers. Many among us may not realise how historic that occasion is. I thought I will spend a bit of time today on what does the ASEAN Charter mean for us in simple language.

Despite ASEAN being existence for more than 41 years, what many people did not realise before this, is that before the signing of the Charter, ASEAN was nothing more than a talk shop, forging agreements through consensus and steering away from confrontation.

This Charter now gives legal identity to ASEAN for international negotiations and transactions. This turns ASEAN more like the European Union and similar to the EU as a legal entity will allow ASEAN to become a single market - a single market for our 500 million+ people is one of the key goals stated in the charter. If ASEAN does become a single market, it brings a set of benefits and interesting situations for Brunei.

The charter also calls for the continued observance of a decade-old treaty banning nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia and prohibits all other weapons of mass destruction. This will continue to bring peace for us in Brunei.

For ASEAN, the most controversial part of the charter is a proposed human rights body. The details of this body will be agreed at the upcoming ASEAN summit in Thailand (supposedly this month but now scheduled in February 2009). In EU, member countries have to abide by the EU Court especially with regard to human rights. Whether such a system will be implemented here in ASEAN is still up in the air.

BUT, there is a but? Yes, there are certain development that we need to be aware of before the ASEAN Charter can be fully implemented.

One, is that the current deepening global financial crisis and political instability in several member states could derail the plans in the ASEAN Charter.

Two, and a very important two is that the Charter is largely without enforcement action. ASEAN does not not have the ability to impose sanctions or expel countries that violate the rights of their own citizens, which could limit the Charter's effectiveness.

Three, the Charter also sets out a common set of rules for trade, investment, environment and other fields. Though this is not a problem per se, ASEAN countries including us in Brunei, now have a set of rules of follow.

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