The much-awaited ASEAN Charter entered into force on Monday, propelling the 41-year-old regional bloc into a new era in which new law-empowered bodies will seek to integrate the member countries and uphold democracy.
The signing was officiated in Jakarta during a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers a month after Thailand became the last member to ratify the charter.
“Regional cooperation and economic integration to build the ASEAN Community will actually shift into higher gear after the ASEAN Charter enters into force today,” ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.
The historic document, signed by ASEAN leaders last year, stipulates rules for its members and unites the geographical bloc of 10 countries and half a billion people into a legalized body that can threaten its members with sanctions.
The charter seeks to integrate the region’s security forces, economies and socio-cultures by 2015.
Critics of the charter have emphasized the absence of nonconsensus decision-making mechanisms and for the vagueness of stipulated sanctions for noncompliance, which state only that any impasse will be brought to the summit of ASEAN leaders.
Doubts have also been raised over the proposed ASEAN human rights body, which is expected to lack powers of prosecution.
Myanmar — ASEAN’s youngest member — has proven to be a thorn in the side as its military junta continues to detain democracy activists, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of political opponents, to affirm its iron grip on the country.
“What ASEAN members have learned is that in this time of globalization, there is no absolute sovereignty. Ten years ago when I was foreign minister of Thailand, we couldn’t even discuss the internal matters of each member. Now we can express concerns, give warnings, ask for explanations.
“Sanctions can be in pressure, (they) don’t have to be in penalties,” said Pitsuwan, adding that the charter sought to match the grouping’s noninterference principle and the current era of inter-state relations.
In his opening remarks at the meeting, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the charter meant ASEAN members were “bound more than ever before to settle our differences in an amicable manner”.
“For a charter will serve its purpose if, and only if, member states faithfully implement in letter and in spirit all its provisions and stipulations,” he said.
The charter had been planned to be officiated during a summit in Thailand this month, but the meeting was rescheduled due to the political crisis in Bangkok.
A new summit has been scheduled to be held in Thailand from Feb. 24-26, Pitsuwan said, with the hope that the political turmoil would have eased by then, and with Monday’s election of a new premier.
An auxiliary meeting of finance ministers will be held in Indonesia in January to discuss the Chiang Mai Initiative on bilateral currency swaps between ASEAN and its dialogue partners China, Japan and South Korea.
ASEAN groups Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.