Not an Empty Chair

On the night of Aug. 30 earlier this year, Clint Eastwood, Hollywood’s macho icon and conservative activist, stood in the limelight of the packed US Republican National Convention. He had placed an empty chair to his left and imagined an utterly failed President Barack Obama sat on it. Then he gave the furniture a merciless but incoherent tongue-lashing.

The witless act went viral. Overnight he became the laughingstock of the American electorate and helped President Obama win a second term. A new word was born: “eastwooding.”

Now here come some people I know who say that Cambodia’s chairmanship of Asean in 2012 was an utter failure. They say that thanks to Cambodia’s widely perceived partiality to China, 2012 will go down in the annals of Asean as “the year of the empty chair,” for lack of accomplishment.

I say they’re doing a Clint Eastwood. The Asean chair in 2012 wasn’t empty. It was filled by a government that did what it could according to its lights. With some positive results.

Says a veteran Indonesian diplomat who observed the various proceedings keenly: “To call [Cambodia’s chairmanship] a failure is too harsh. But to say that it’s a resounding success is too generous.” OK, let’s not call it a resounding success. Call it arguably successful.

True, there are things that should have happened but didn’t. There was no accession by the nuclear weapon states to the amended Protocol of the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty. And although Asean was ready to negotiate on a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, China preferred negotiating with individual states, not the grouping. The ministerial meeting last July failed to issue a Chairman’s Statement because two members could not countenance the lack of reference to the South China Sea in the draft statement.

These are awful stumbles, of course, but they are compensated by several positive outcomes. First, the establishment of the Regional Mine Action Center in Phnom Penh. This will save many lives and limbs, as countless deadly landmines, the mementos of a violent past, remain buried all over mainland Asean.

Second, the establishment of the Institute of Peace and Reconciliation in Jakarta—an institution that will produce skilled peacekeepers to reconciliation experts that will serve not only the region but the rest of the world.

Third, the approval of the Plan of Action for Bali Concord III, which specifies how Asean is going to help solve persistent global problems, like climate change.

The biggest outcome was the Asean Human Rights Declaration, by which the members committed themselves to the highest standards of promoting and protecting human rights.

Is it a perfect declaration? No, it isn’t. It’s riddled with loopholes. But as Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has argued: it’s a way forward for Asean. Not a way forward for Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand, which are much ahead of the declaration. But a way forward for ALL of Asean, where some members lag far behind the declaration’s standards.

There’s a right time to strive for perfection. That’s when Asean negotiates a legally binding human rights convention. That convention cannot have a song and dance about cultural exceptions. So the negotiations will be tough. That will be the true crucible of Asean’s commitment to human rights.

Had the more democratic Asean members insisted on a perfect declaration this early, none would have been issued. And the schedule for negotiating the more important human rights convention would have been pushed back. Thus the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Better a flawed jewel in your hand than a perfect one in your dreams.

Meanwhile, we saw an imperfect chairmanship but not an empty chair.

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