Asean’s attitude toward civil society
The relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or Asean and civil society organizations (CSOs) has been a thorny one throughout 11 years of engagement. This is despite the fact that Asean has explicitly recognized the role that CSOs can play in the region. The main forum for CSO engagement with Asean is the Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF).
In 2005, “Asean announced that it would recognize ACSC as the ‘formal platform’ for CSOs, to be convened in conjunction with the annual leaders’ summits.” Through its three blueprints for 2025, Asean acknowledges the role of CSOs with respect to the association’s three pillars — the economic community, the sociocultural community, and the political-security community. But Asean’s recognition of CSOs is inconsistent given that in the 2007 Asean Charter and in its main 2025 blueprint, there is no mention of CSOs at all.
A fundamental problem lies in how the body officially defines CSOs. The 2012 “Asean Guidelines on Accreditation for Civil Society Organization” defines a CSO as: “a non-profit organisation of Asean entities, natural or juridical, that promotes, strengthens and helps realise the aims and objectives of the Asean Community and its three Pillars …”
Similarly, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights defines a CSO as: “the association of persons … which are organized voluntarily to promote, strengthen and help realise the aims and objectives of Asean activities and cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
This definition is, obviously, self-serving and runs counter to internationally accepted definitions of CSOs as independent and autonomous players with their own vision and goals that may not necessarily coincide with state policies. The UN Development Program defines CSOs as “all non-market and non-state organizations outside of the family in which people organize themselves to pursue shared interests in the public domain. CSOs, by their very nature, are independent of direct government control and management.”
As the scholar Helen Nesadurai observed: “Asean’s preference appears to be for a civil society that will help it achieve the already established goals and projects of Asean’s governing elite rather than a civil society that will — through genuine, two-way deliberations — help Asean set these goals and agendas in the first place.”
In other words, CSOs are expected to adhere to Asean’s preset agenda. Not surprisingly, there has hardly been any progress in making Asean recognize civil society’s legitimate concerns let alone seriously implement the range of proposals presented at the annual Asean summits. The attitude shown by Asean in its dealings with civil society groups can best be described as tokenism and often marked by improper government interventions that violate the independence and autonomy of CSOs.
In the interface between CSOs and the heads of state that takes place at the end of their annual summits, Asean governments insist on approving the names of CSO representatives or designating their own state-supported CSOs to sit in the gathering. Furthermore, a mere 15-30 minutes are allocated for the meeting. Because of these indecorous impositions, the interface has become a farcical and meaningless exercise.
In assuming the chairship of Asean 2017 on the occasion of the group’s 50th year, the Philippine government must also take the lead in righting the wrongs done to CSOs by the Asean process and usher in a new mode of Asean-CSO relations based on mutual respect, popular participation, inclusiveness, and democratic governance. Unless this new mode is put in place, Asean will continue to be perceived as catering only to the narrow interests of political and economic elites in the realms of the state and market and divorced from the peoples’ goals and aspirations.
Eduardo C. Tadem, PhD, is coconvenor of the 2017 ACSC/APF Philippine National Organizing Committee, president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, and professorial lecturer at University of the Philippines Diliman.
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