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ASEAN Agrees to Draft Charter For First Time in History

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have authorized the drawing up of a charter that would give their organization a legal basis for the first time since it was founded four decades ago. Douglas Bakshian reports from the ASEAN summit in the Philippine city of Cebu.

The summit endorsed a charter framework that was drawn up by a group of former and current senior ASEAN officials. The document is designed to make ASEAN a more modern, effective and credible organization.

ASEAN has always been run on a consensus basis. This was feasible at the group's founding in 1967, when it consisted of only five member-nations. But now it has 10 members representing a population of more than 560 million people. These nations are at widely differing levels of wealth and development, and consensus is not always easy to achieve. More formal processes were needed.

Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos, the head of the panel drafting the charter, says ASEAN must keep in step with the times.

"This is now the 21st century, 39-and-a-half years after the Bangkok Declaration of 1967 (ASEAN's founding). The world has changed…. And so with that as the reality today, we must understand that ASEAN must transform into a more credible institution with a legal personality," said Ramos.

Since its inception, ASEAN has also operated on the principle of non-interference in member nations' domestic affairs. But the Burmese government's harsh political repression has embarrassed the other governments, and they have pressed Burma to move more quickly towards democracy.

Malaysia's former deputy prime minister, Musa Hitam, also of the draft charter group, says a consensus system is no longer enough in a case like this.

"The consensus system of decision-making is to be retained. But in more serious, important matters, if consensus could not be achieved, voting is provided for," he said.

The charter would include systems to monitor and enforce agreements, to establish panels that can reach binding decisions on disputes, and to sanction members for major breaches of the rules.

"And if there is a serious breach of fundamental provisions of the charter, then our recommendation is that the ASEAN leaders should be empowered to take measures to redress such non-compliance," explained Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar. "These measures may include the temporary suspension of the rights and privileges of membership. And of course, in extreme cases, expulsion is not to be ruled out."

The leaders formally endorsed the report on the charter framework Saturday. Officials hope to have a final charter ready for approval when the next summit is held in Singapore at the end of this year.