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Singapore: 'Asean Needs To Find Ways To Resolve Disputes'

SINGAPORE: It has been a trying year for Singapore's chairmanship of Asean.

Last year, the Republic had to cope with two crises related to Burma--the country's bloody political crackdown in September and the aid controversy following Cyclone Nargis.

This week, Singapore had to cope with an even bigger crisis--the tense military stand-off between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Earlier this month, the United Nations recognised the temple as a World Heritage site. This infuriated Thai nationalists and led to more than 500 Thai troops facing off against at least 1,000 Cambodian soldiers.

The Burma crises sorely tested Asean's principle of non-interference. Now, the Thai-Cambodian spat has put into the spotlight one of the fundamental building blocks laid out in the Asean Charter: dispute settlement mechanisms.

Currently, Asean does not have any tried-and-tested mechanisms to address crises like the one between Thailand and Cambodia.

Rodolfo Severino, a former Asean secretary-general, said that disputes have historically been settled informally, with outside parties roped in to mediate.

Another recourse for disputes is the Treaty of Amity of Cooperation (TAC). The Treaty, which has been signed by all 10 Asean members and another 14 countries, requires signatories to renounce the use or threat of force and calls for the peaceful settlement of conflicts.

But critics argue that the TAC's High Council has never been convened.

"What Asean has tried to do is to see if Cambodia and Thailand would like to talk within the auspices of Asean, whether they use the troika, the Asean secretary-general or group of eminent persons," said Associate Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"Cambodia has agreed to use Asean, but Thailand has said no, so that presents a problem," she added.

The Asean Charter is supposed to provide more formal mechanisms for dispute settlement.

Under Article 24, for example, some disputes can be referred to the TAC. Article 26 adds that unresolved disputes can be referred to the Asean Summit for a decision.

There are, however, two pressing problems associated with the mechanisms laid out in the Charter. For one, the Asean members in dispute have to agree to bring their case before Asean.

Professor Don Emmerson, a South-east Asian expert at Stanford University, said the fact that the TAC was not invoked by Thailand and Cambodia is an indictment of Asean's effectiveness as a conflict resolution body.

"The fact that TAC's High Council has never been convened, despite various incidents that might have resulted in that body's activation, is further evidence that when signatories have disputes they prefer to settle them outside the Treaty's terms," Prof Emmerson told The Straits Times.

M Severino disagrees. He argues that Asean members are not obligated to resort to Asean's auspices for dispute settlement.

"Neither the Charter or TAC obligates anybody to come to Asean for mediation," he said.

A second problem is associated with the speed of implementation of the Charter.

This week's Asean ministerial meetings have led to the establishment of a High Level Legal Experts Group that will, among other things, consider recommendations on such mechanisms.

This group, however, will submit their recommendations only at the next Asean Summit in Bangkok in December.

In the meantime, Asean members are encouraged to use the TAC as a conflict resolution instrument. The significance of the TAC will be underscored by the accession of North Korea, which is expected to sign the Treaty Thursday (24 July).

The establishment of TAC's central role would enable the bigger, 27-member Asean Regional Forum (ARF) to become less of a 'talk shop' and more of a body built to pre-empt any regional crises that may arise.

Professor Carl Thayer, a visiting fellow at the Strategic Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, argues that Asean and the ARF still have a long way to go.

"The TAC has a minimal deterrent on countries that violate it. It's not going to deter a country that decides to use force. If the Thai-Cambodian situation escalates and national pride gets in the way of the TAC, national pride will trump it."

In short, no one can say that Asean's dispute settlement system is broken, since it is still emerging. But the drawing up of such a system in the coming months will need a lot of thoughtful circumspection and effective follow-up. (By WILLIAM CHOONG/ The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2008.07.24


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