The adoption of the Terms of Reference of the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) on 20 July 2009 is another major milestone following the ASEAN Charter which was ratified at the end of 2008. It may seem that ASEAN is moving towards a “Rules-Based entity” which respects the rights of individuals.

The ASEAN Charter now establishes this association as a legal entity – with rights and responsibilities and paves the way for the creation of an ASEAN Community. The ASEAN Charter also provides a more concrete basis for implementing the three pillars for the formation of the ASEAN Community. Member states had agreed, through the Declaration of ASEAN Concord II, with blueprints for economic, security and socio-economic reforms by 2015.

The three pillars are (1) the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) which allows for free-flowing goods, services, investment and skilled labour, (2) the ASEAN Security Community (ASC) which reemphasis ASEAN’s priority in ensuring the region remains stable and free from foreign interference and (3) The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) which addresses the concerns of citizens (social protection, environmental sustainability and sustainable development, social governance and preservation and promotion of cultural heritage and identity) – all of which are based on a recognition of human rights.

Progress in the first two pillars (AEC and ASC) has been clearly significant in comparison to the socio-cultural pillar. This demonstrates ASEAN’s key priority – pursuing economic growth and domestic security far above human rights. The importance that ASEAN gives to civil society in comparison to the business community may indicate the place socio-cultural issues has in the ASEAN process. This is not surprising too, as most (or all) ASEAN member states have serious issues with regards to human rights domestically. With the implementation of the AICHR, ASEAN member states will place higher priority in achieving the goals of the ASCC.

That ASEAN is a strategic partner in both the security and economic sphere to all the major powers may also explain the slow progress in the socio-cultural sphere. ASEAN’s biggest contribution to date has been its ability to reduce intra-regional conflict and its strategic role in facilitating regional stability in East Asia – which is welcomed by the major powers. ASEAN has managed key flashpoints in the region through quiet diplomacy both internally and externally. All major powers – the U.S., China, Japan, the E.U., and India continue to court ASEAN.

It is hoped that with the implementation of the AICHR, ASEAN and the international community realises that the three pillars that will make the ASEAN Community should be addressed simultaneously and not in any particular order. Economic and security gains that do not benefit the citizens of ASEAN are ultimately meaningless.