Monday, April 30, 2012

Asean civil society under stress

Monday, 30 April 2012 13:53 Kavi Chongkittavorn

(Commentary) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen displayed his finest brinkmanship in his handling of Asean-based civil society organisations at the recent Asean summit in Phnom Penh.

Kavi Chongkittavorn
Ahead of the leader’s meeting, his government organised a conference of hundreds of government-sponsored non-government groups including local entities and those from other Asean members.

With over 1,000 registered participants, it was the biggest-ever session since the interface between Asean leaders and civil society started in earnest in 2005.

On the same day, however, at a local hotel, several dozen Asean-based independent civil groups held a parallel conference focusing on more sensitive issues related to land evictions, migration workers and minority rights.

As the current chair of Asean, Hun Sen was able to set the format and agenda of the interface session, which  has been a bone of contention at every  summit for the past seven years. The Cambodian government hand-picked its representatives to take part in the “dialogue,” which was joined by groups from the rest of Asean with the exception of Indonesia and the Philippines.

The two countries wanted to pursue the existing practice of having the interface’s representatives selected by civil society groups themselves, and not by the leaders. As long as the groups lack unity, the host would be able to manipulate the agenda and dialogue, they said. It remains to be seen how the second meeting planned in November will proceed.

Cambodia represents is one of numerous governments around the world with an ambivalent attitude toward the role of civil society and how far it should be allowed to take part in decision-making. These governments have become skilful at restricting democratic space open to civil society’s activities through quasi-legal and other obstacles, but usually stop short of traditional forms of repression.

At the Phnom Penh summit, the host passionately preached the virtue of building a people-centred Asean Community (AC) — meaning engaging civil society and grass root groups at large by listening and considering their input. But in reality, it is an empty promise. For the time being the interactions have been carried out officially in a limited circle with the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) and selective civil society and youth leaders.

Strong political will needed

While the Asean leaders hailed the anticipated achievement of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), they remained less eager to discuss the outcomes of political-security and socio-cultural communities – the other two pivotal pillars.  Obviously, just to launch the AEC in 2015 will require stronger political will from the Asean leaders, who still face domestic constraints, especially on non-tariff barriers and trade in services.

Furthermore, senior Asean officials have had a hard time making quantitative measurements of non-economic cooperation to get a comprehensive picture of community-building. For instance, how does one measure the level of political or security cooperation or knowledge of Asean among member countries? With the AC deadlines approaching, it raises an important question of whether the people-oriented community can be achieved in time, without full participation of all stakeholders.

]Within Asean, Cambodia is not alone, as Vietnam used a similar approach during its 2010 chair, separating independent and government-sponsored non-government organisations but with greater emphasis on the latter.

When the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand hosted the interface sessions, their governments gave due respect to the civil society groups and listened as much as they could for views and took up a long list of inputs.

That helps explain why most active civil society groups are based in these three countries. Since the adoption of the Asean Charter in 2008 and the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights, there has been a new surge of civil society groups focusing on human rights issues, apart from the environment, migration, and women’s and children’s issues.

In addition, they have also quickly picked up new topics related to governance and transparency. While this a positive development, their contributions have not yet impacted on Asean’s top-down approach to decision making. In general, the Asean leaders have not taken their civil society groups seriously.

Recognition for NGSs

Last year, Asean came up with a guideline on how to recognize the non-governmental organisations after years of debate. Now they can apply to become either an Asean-affiliated organisation or a stakeholder. The latter would be able to have an interface with the Asean leaders through their representatives.

Currently, there are three organisations – the Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism, the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre and the Federation of Institution of Food Science and Technology in Asean – that are acknowledged as Asean stakeholders. It is hoped that this framework will provide proper recognition to existing civil society groups in all member countries that can lead to institutionalisation of the interface with the Asean leaders. At the moment, most of the Asean-affiliated organisations belonged to professional organisations such as the Asean Kite Council, the Asean Vegetable Oils Club and the Asean Thalassaemia Society, to name but a few.

To be fair, like Asean, civil society in other countries also face similar challenges because the governments in power continue to view them as threats or trouble makers with links with hostile foreign governments or organisations that providing funding. They try to deny their citizens’ rights to form and join civil groups, as well as limit their operations and activities. Recently, after months of negotiations between the government and civil groups, Cambodia decided to postpone for two years a controversial law that would restrict the operations of civil society groups.

Truth be told, even in the most mature democracies, there are measures to restrict civic space, and freedom of association and assembly. In a canton in Geneva, for instance, a local law punishes demonstrators with a hefty fine of 100,000 Swiss francs, if they did not listen to police orders.

In responding to the uneven and unfair treatments to civil society globally, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution in September 2010 on the “Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association” and appointing a special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association. In other words, from now on, the UN is fully involved in setting the standards and norms including promotion and protection of civil society organisations world-wide against all repressive governments. Since then, other regional organisations have contemplated a similar move. Last June, the Organization of American States adopted the same resolution.

The UN rapporteur’s office has already sent official letters to the Asean governments for trips to their countries. So far, none of them have positively responded to the requests. In the long haul, this could tarnish the grouping’s overall reputation and undermine the slogan of a caring and sharing Asean community.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a long-time observer of Asean and Southeast Asian affairs.

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