Can ASEAN be a peace mediator?

Agus Wandi, Jakarta | Fri, 08/13/2010 9:19 AM | Opinion in the Jakarta Post

An international peace mediation workshop was recently organized by the European Commission (EC) and the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) in Jakarta to promote cooperation between ASEAN and the European Union (EU) on conflict mediation and prevention in the region.

Among the key questions that emerged was how to promote ASEAN as an effective vehicle for peace mediation. The EU has been responsible for a number of initiatives to strengthen its mediation and dialogue capacities in this field, and ASEAN is now taking steps to model itself on best practices from other regions in order to develop itself as a leader in peace building.

Unlike some skeptics, I believe ASEAN has the potential to become an effective regional body for crisis mediation and prevention. ASEAN has already begun developing programs to promote peace in the region in “its own way”.

The ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) blueprint provides a number of recommendations for conflict management put forward by the institution. The blue print envisages three pillars. Among them is a cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with shared responsibility for a comprehensive state of security.

The blueprint outlines ASEAN’s commitment to conflict prevention, preventive diplomacy and post-conflict building. It also provides an action plan to achieve targets in these areas through research, cooperation and development of an institutional framework to deal with regional conflict and security issues.

Outside this blueprint, in the last few years, ASEAN has also engaged in conflict resolution issues. As a regional entity, ASEAN worked with the EU to monitor the implementation of the MoU under the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM). While ASEAN plays a minor role in the AMM, it could be the start of its deeper involvement in the future.

It is now time for ASEAN to walk the walk. There is a challenge for the regional body to solve its own dilemma. On the one hand, the region has indicated it would like to participate in initiatives to promote conflict prevention in the region, to add another sphere of influence for the region as it emerges as a strong economic player on the international stage.

On the other hand, the desire for peace is constrained by both its internal framework, which protects the sovereign rights of its members from external interference, and its reluctance on the regional level to open itself to third-party involvement, especially from non-ASEAN countries.

In reality, most conflicts in the region would benefit from the experience and expertise that third parties from other conflict areas could provide in building trust between governments or mediating peace talks.

Indonesia and the Philippines have engaged teams of conflict resolution experts in developing the strategic frameworks for ending conflicts in their countries, and building toward stable peace. The benefits of working together with experienced actors outside the region could enrich ASEAN countries.

In the case of the peace process in Aceh, many feared that external mediation would bolster the separatist movement. However, this was by no means the case. Peace was achieved, the province did not become politically diffused, and economic development has become the focus for long-lasting peace.

Aceh has a long way to go to prove the success of the special autonomy status it was granted by the central government; and the success of the peace process was strongly affected by aid entering the region following the 2004 tsunami. Regardless, the process in Aceh illustrates how third party involvement, through mediation and assistance, can be important in supporting the attainment of a wider peace.

ASEAN needs to learn from this experience on a regional level. The AMM is a successful example of the first partnership ASEAN has undertaken with a regional counterpart to address conflict in one of its member states: In this case, with the EU.

Because of the general resistance in the region in regards to outside “meddling” in state and regional affairs, ASEAN would be best served by developing its own institutions for conflict mediation and conflict prevention. Strengthening the capacity and scope of peace building mediators already working in ASEAN countries should be explored and promoted.

An interesting recommendation put forward in the blueprint is the establishment of an ASEAN center for peace and reconciliation. This center could focus on research about social crises in the region, and provide recommendations for peace building activities and internal mechanisms for managing and preventing conflict.

ASEAN civil society should also be involved in conflict prevention initiatives in the region. Many civil society groups have more extensive experience in this field than their governments, and have built strong networks among themselves. Bringing civil society groups on board and learning from their experience is crucial, as the identity of an ASEAN peace building agency is being formed. The wisdom of a handful of respected actors in countries across the region who have worked on peace mediation needs to be harnessed and replicated.

The key is for ASEAN to continue exploring what role it can best play to contribute to peace in the region. The ASEAN blueprint is a good start, but further action is crucial.

The writer is director of the IDCC (International Development and Crisis Consultants) and a post-conflict consultant.

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