Civil Society Participation in ASEAN Regionalism

August 5, 2021ASEAN

HRWG’s main objective is to promote governments’  accountability on constitutional obligations and international standards to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights by maximizing available human rights mechanisms at different levels.  HRWG has drawn upon its role as a regional actor to further increase the effectiveness of human rights advocacy work in this region.  Specifically, our target advocacy is the Association of Southeast  Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its human rights bodies, namely the ASEAN  Inter-governmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR), the  ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) and ASEAN Committee on the  ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of  Migrant Workers (ACMW). 

HRWG believes that regional integration will only be meaningful and beneficial to the people in this region when ASEAN is truly upholding the human rights and democratic principles in its work.  One of the key elements of democracy is participation.  

As a human rights body, AICHR in its terms of reference (TOR), in  Article 4.8, includes the mandate of engagement “in dialogue and  consultation with other ASEAN bodies and entities associated with  ASEAN, including civil society organizations and other stakeholders,  as provided for in Chapter V of the ASEAN Charter.” Meanwhile,  ACWC’s TOR Article 3.9 states that ACWC will, “adopt a collaborative  and consultative approach with ASEAN Member-States, academia and civil society pertaining to the rights of women and children.” As well in its Rules of Procedure: Article 53 states, “The ACWC shall engage the participation of civil society and stakeholders wherever possible. Such participation shall respect the principles of  transparency, effective and meaningful dialogue.” 

Various observers have critically alleged that ASEAN is unwilling to engage with civil society, which can be at least partially explained as a consequence of governmental suspicion of civil society in the region. There has been a trust deficit between governments and civil society organizations (CSOs). However, in addressing the democracy deficit, since the late 1990s, ASEAN has widened its policy-making process to include CSOs.  

Civil society’s interests, especially in the human rights of marginalised people, have been considered a direct challenge and opposition to the interests of states or businesses. As a result, ASEAN’s approach to  engagement with CSOs provides a bureaucratic platform followed with rules and procedures to control their participation.  

Once ASEAN has introduced a people-centred ASEAN as stated  in its Blueprint 2025, it doesn’t mean that it has shifted their  treatment automatically to CSOs. In the CSOs’ advocacy point of  view, it can be seen as a formal acknowledgement that can be a  legal justification for a long-term modality to, at least, secure the  norm-setting for further advocacy. By stating to be a people-centred  ASEAN, this Association’s accountability should be directed to the  community, people of the ASEAN. Thus, all decision-making should  result from a consultative process between the government and  their people. 

While appreciating numbers of efforts in various consultations  under some platforms of engagement that have been developed  and exercised, the question remains on the effectiveness in bringing  a “meaningful” engagement. It has to move beyond rhetoric. It is  important to ensure that each population in the region could directly  feel the benefits of regional integration. 

Some studies are highlighting the range of participatory  mechanisms and their challenges. However, despite all challenges  and limitations, the studies on how CSOs could optimize the existing  platforms of participation and engagement with ASEAN are lacking.  

This is the gap this study tries to fill. It aims to identify civil society  engagement modality in ASEAN, by analysing the organization of  the ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/ APF). This forum represents CSOs critiques on human rights  violations, discrimination and inequality, environmental issues,  injustice, challenges of the democratic process and good governance.  This study has also successfully come up with recommendations to  empower the forum by proposing a new organizational model for  future engagement and ways forward and rebranding it.  

This is a collaborative work led by Dwi Ardhanariswari Sundrijo,  together with Dhanny Safitri, Kirana Virajati, Petrus Putut Pradhopo  Wening and myself with full support of FORUM-ASIA. This can be a  baseline study on the effective participation of CSOs in the ASEAN  regionalism by assessing alternative modality of ACSC/APF. It is a  tool of engagement for solidarity and to improve cooperation. With  a full hope that ACSC/APF, not only as an annual regional people’s  get-together event but also as an effective regional CSOs advocacy  platform, in the future can influence ASEAN’s official policy-making  mechanisms so that the process is more people-centred. 

Happy New Year! 


Jakarta, 7 January 2021 


Daniel Awigra 

Deputy Director of the Human Rights Working Group – Indonesia’s  NGO Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy

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