Asia Europe People's Forum I

17 November 2005
Article

Asia Europe People's Forum I,
Bangkok, Thailand, 27-29 February 1996


Introduction. An Impulse for the 21st century

The first Joint Asia-Europe NGO Conference with the theme 'Beyond Geo-politics and Geo-economics: Towards a New Relationship Between Asia and Europe' took place on February 27-29 in Bangkok. Approximately 400 women and men, representing a wide range of people's organisations and NGOs participated in this historic event. This NGO conference was scheduled on the eve of the ASEM (March 1-2), the first Summit bringing together 15 European Union (EU) and 10 Asian government leaders, from the seven ASEAN countries, China, Japan and South Korea.

The aim of the NGO Conference was to open up a discussion between civil society actors in Asia and Europe and to initiate a dialogue that addresses the new challenges confronting both Asia and Europe and to work towards forging a shared vision and a common programme of action between the two continents.

ASEM - A New Point of Departure in Asia-Europe Relations

Centuries of commerce, the impact of European colonialism in Asia, the post-Second World War resurgence of Europe, then Asia, and their economic clout have ensured many levels of inter-action between the two continents. How ever, the ASEM Summit, the first joint meeting of government leaders from Europe and Asia represents a major development in Europe's attempts to position itself in the world's most dynamic economic region. ASEM's significance has to be viewed within the context of the current acceleration of the formation of other Regional Blocs in the Asia-Pacific region -the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Asean Free Trade Association (AFTA), and the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC).

Competing visions on regional integration have been played out in the run-up to the APEC Summit which took place in Osaka during November 1995. Regional elites (governments and business) have been positioning on the conflicting models of 'US' or 'Japanese' regional integration. While the EU has been largely marginalised in this debate, it has however taken its own steps to strengthen its position in the region.

Besides the instruments of the EU-ASEAN Cooperation Agreement, and its bi-lateral relations with many countries in the Asia- Pacific region, the EU is now developing through the ASEM a longer term strategy towards the region.

The EU's New Asia Strategy dominated as it is by geo-economic considerations, adds another dimension to the competing bloc politics in the region. The New Asia Strategy is a clear and unambiguous statement of the promotion of the economic self-interest of one of the world's competing power blocks. It sets European interests above other interests and implicitly reflects the needs and agendas of European-based transnational corporations and financial institutions.

Europe's new attention to Asia derives from an integrated long-term strategy embodied in policy documents issued by the European Commission. The Commission's 1994 New Asia Strategy sets out a framework for increasing Europe's commercial and diplomatic presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Asia-Europe NGO Conference therefore was an important venue to put into focus the urgent issues affecting the peoples of both regions. It also began the process of formulating a new relationship between the two continents from a people's perspective.

Governments are not the sole Stakeholders of Asia Europe Relations

At the press conference closing the NGO Conference, Professor Gothom Arya of Chulalongkorn University, congratulated the participants on the achievements of the conference:

'The unprecedented media interest generated by this conference has reaffirmed the legitimacy of the grassroots organisations and proved that governments are not the sole stakeholders of Europe-Asia relations. It also placed uncomfortable issues on the agenda, which would otherwise not have been there. The European and Asian NGOs committed themselves to pursue these issues in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect'.

This was the resonant message of the NGO Conference: definitively rejecting the narrow 'geo-economics' of the official ASEM, and asserting a people centred agenda for signposting the future of relations between the two continents.

Development that is Politically Participatory

A development paradigm, rooted in democratic participation of people's organisations was asserted in Bangkok both by the event of the NGO Conference which involved a high level of participation from Thai organisations, the media, as well as by the 'parliament of the streets', where farmers, workers and students held parallel demonstrations.

Development issues were in fact absent from the official ASEM agenda. Arunee Srito, a leading figure of the labour movement in Thailand, drew attention to this in her keynote address at the opening of the NGO Conference and also at a rally outside the ASEM Convention centre. Mrs. Srito stressed the urgency of linking economic development to democracy. Referring to ASEM she said, 'We support such initiatives of international co-operation, but we feel the ASEM could have wider social implications if subjects concerning human aspects of development had been duly touched upon in the discussions, with of course the participation of trade unions and representatives of the people's organisations'.

In contrast to the ASEM, whose main agenda was primarily geared to serve the economic interests of the dominant elites in both regions, the NGO Conference put forward 'an alternative vision that would be people-centred, socially just, economically equitable, ecologically sustainable and politically participatory'. As an integral part of this process, the 25 governments were called on 'to ensure that women's human rights are respected and promoted and that the benefits of economic development are shared more equitably'.

People's Issues Impact on the Official ASEM

The NGO Conference had a very direct impact on the ASEM itself: the Thai government responsive to public opinion made the decision to allow the NGO Conference to go ahead, despite threats to cancel the event under pressure from within as well as from some neighbour governments; East Timor made its way into the official ASEM without the threatened walk-out of the Indonesians. Most European and Asian Embassies in Bangkok sent observers to the NGO Conference and several official government delegations requested briefings from NGO delegates. Priority issues highlighted in these briefings included: human rights concerns, child prostitution, rights of migrant workers; ethical investment, protection of the environment and the inequitable nature of current world trade agreements. The specific cases of Ireland, East Timor, Bosnia and Burma were raised as were key proposals for disarmament, challenging the governments of both regions; a total ban on the production, sale and use of land mines and the negotiation of a new comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. Both of these forms of warfare were aptly described as ones in which 'grandchildren die in their grandparents' wars'.

Forging a Common Agenda

The process initiated at the NGO Conference in a new quality of substantive dialogue (47 papers were prepared for the NGO Conference) will be carried on. Even though this was a first encounter for the NGO constituencies, significant consensus was reached on many topics. However, there were diverse views on such areas as the Social Clause and Code of Conducts and these will be topics for further rigorous study and discussion. The dialectic of looking at both Europe and Asia and seeking to identify common agendas for the 21st century will be maintained in the follow-up period.

Follow-up

The co-convenors of the Conference were tasked to develop a follow-up framework to carry forward the impulse from Bangkok. In Asia, The Bangkok Organizing Committee including Focus on the Global South (Thailand), are working jointly with the Transnational Institute (TNI) (Netherlands), CIIR (Britain) and Asia Foundation (Germany) in Europe to develop a programme of activities (information/advocacy and research) in the period upto ASEM II. It is expected that ASEM II will take place in the spring of 1998 in London under the British Presidency of the EU.

Recommendations to the ASEM from the Asia Europe NGO conference on the future of Asian European nations.

Over 350 women and men representing 100 peoples' organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participated in the First Joint Asia-Europe NGO Conference with the theme 'Beyond Geo-politics and Geo- economics: Towards a New Relationship Between Asia and Europe' from Feb 27 to 29 in Bangkok. This conference was held as a parallel to the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) scheduled to be held March 1-2, between 10 Asian and 15 European heads of state.

The conference unanimously endorsed the withdrawal of France from French Polynesia and New Caledonia supervised by the European Union (EU) and of Indonesia from East Timor under the auspices of ASEAN. The NGO meeting also called on the Asian governments to reject the Multilateral Investment Agreement promoted by the European Union and the World Trade Organization. The conference also demanded that ASEM governments end repression and harassment of NGOs and end the climate of fear in which they currently operate in some countries.

At the same time, the conference recognized the challenges confronting Asia and Europe and decided to work towards forging a shared vision and a common programme of action between the two continents that goes beyond a narrow obsession with economic growth.

The participants were of the view that by centring relations on mere geo-political and geo-economic considerations, ASEM is primarily serving the narrow interests of dominant elites in the two regions.

It is in this context that the participants sought to put forward an alternative vision that would be people-centred, socially just, economically equitable, ecologically sustainable and politically participatory. Such a vision would embody respect for human rights and human dignity and nurture the spiritual, moral, intellectual and cultural lives of all individuals and communities in both regions.

Towards this end, the conference urged transparency and accountability in the future ASEM process. The participation of citizens in the decision-making process of governments in both continents should not be just limited to parliamentarians and business people.

Participants agreed that organizations of workers, women, indigenous and tribal communities, popular organizations and NGOs have to be also included. In this regard, the conference declaration expressed the desire to look forward to a continuing dialogue and to the establishment of the mechanisms that would facilitate this. This demands social commitment and political will on the part of governments of Asia and Europe.

As part of this process, the 25 governments should ensure that women's human rights are respected and promoted and that the benefits of economic development are shared more equitably.

The conference endorsed that respect for human rights should be central to Asia-Europe relations and emphasized that participating countries in ASEM are all signatories to UN summit declarations (Rio 1992, Vienna 1993, Cairo 1994, Copenhagen and Beijing 1995). Conference participants reminded the ASEM governments to remember their obligations and responsibilities under these covenants and give the utmost respect to the protection of human rights.

Towards Sustainable People-Centred Social and Economic Relations

We support efforts to increase mutually beneficial trade and investment between Asia and Europe. But we are concerned that agreements such as the GATT Uruguay Round only serve to strengthen the economic power of already powerful economic actors. Northern powers push trade liberalisation while increasing protection of their own economies through the decisions of multilateral institutions, unilateral trade sanctions and massive internal subsidies. Combined with the opening up of developing countries' agricultural markets as mandated by the WTO, subsidised American and European agricultural exports will further threaten small-holder agriculture in developing countries. For example, European Common Agricultural Policy involves major subsidisation of agricultural production and threatens small-holder agriculture in developing countries. In addition, within the EU, the top 20 per cent of farmers mainly benefit from such subsidies.

Contrary to the expectations generated by the United Nations summits, the process of globalization and the demands of dominant lifestyles have caused widespread social and cultural disruption, new economic chasms, ecological devastation and political disenfranchisement.

We are also concerned that European relations with Asia will focus predominantly on trade, and therefore on the fastest growing countries in the region, the ten countries invited to ASEM, and will disregard other countries especially those in South Asia where poverty rates remain scandalously high. The EU should promote coherent policies in trade and development cooperation that take into account the inter-relationships within the region as a whole.

In addition, newly proposed investment agreements, for example under the WTO, would give foreign companies the right to enter all economic sectors. Governments would lose their right to regulate foreign investment. In the process, they would lose control over macroeconomic policies and ultimately over their country's natural resources. If such a WTO agreement were to be concluded, there would be disastrous consequences, especially for developing countries. Local farms, banks and other enterprises would not be strong enough to compete with multinational companies. Many of them would have to close down. Worldwide, vulnerable groups would suffer most.

Finally, we are particularly concerned that current patterns of trade and investment are increasingly based on the exploitation of women at work, in their communities and in their homes.

Democracy and Human Rights

We believe that respect for human rights should be central to Asia-Europe relations. While the struggle for human rights can only be fought within the context of cultural and social realities in each country, we do not believe that cultural particularism can be used to justify violations of human rights or that such violations are 'domestic' affairs. Neither do we believe that accountability for human rights violations is only an Asian responsibility. We oppose violations of the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia, as well as those of East Timor and Burma. In both Europe and Asia, the rights of migrant workers are systematically ignored and violated.

We believe in the universality of human rights as well as the indivisibility and interdependence of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. Cutbacks in social expenditure have eroded the socio-economic rights of the poor and vulnerable in many European countries. Europe should also be held accountable for 'trans-border human rights violations' resulting from its economic relations with developing countries. European investments help prop up military regimes, gross violators of human rights, in countries such as Burma and Indonesia.

Many governments in Asia should be condemned for systematic violations of human rights. Many have internal security laws which allow arrest without warrant, detention without trial and imprisonment of people for proscribed political beliefs. Formally democratic countries frequently ignore the social and economic rights of their people. Local communities of farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples and urban dwellers are often deprived of their rights to land and livelihoods to make way for so-called development projects without proper compensation or alternative livelihoods.

Many governments systematically encourage the occupation of indigenous peoples' land and strip them of resources. Governments and multinationals must recognise and respect that indigenous peoples' identity and livelihood are based on their land and resources, and are related to their religious, cultural, linguistic and economic systems.

We oppose the cynical manipulation of workers' rights as an instrument of international competition in trade and investment. We demand the repeal of laws setting barriers to the organisation of unions and other workers' organisations. We support concerted international action against gross violations of workers' rights including child labour, strike bans, and the torture and imprisonment of labour organisers.

Migration, and specifically labour migration, is increasingly an integral part of the economies of sending and receiving countries. Between Asia and Europe, population mobility is significant yet basic information, details of problems and policy formulation remain inadequate. It is important to include on the agenda of the Asia-Europe Meeting: transnational migration, its problems (especially human rights violations of women migrant workers), its prospects and impacts. Human trafficking is an integral, if unfortunate, part of labour migration. The numbers of people trafficked across national borders is growing, as is the network of traffickers who profit from the illicit trade. The illegal status of trafficked persons in host countries makes them more vulnerable to exploitation in manual, domestic and sexual labour.

Politics and Security

We welcome ASEM's attention to political and security issues. Wars and conflicts of all types in Asia and Europe victimise hundreds of thousands of civilians. Under these conditions, poverty eradication and economic growth are meaningless. We support all efforts to actively seek political solutions to armed conflicts with international mediation. The fundamental need for nuclear disarmament and regulation and reduction of the arms trade demand broad public discussion and the conclusion of transparent and equitable international agreements.

Anti-personnel landmines are a particularly insidious weapon of war whose legacy remains long after the conflict has ceased. Landmines kill and maim soldiers and civilians alike, resulting in ongoing costs of health care and rehabilitation, lost productivity and waste of formerly productive farmland, along with great personal loss.

 

Follow-up of Asia-Europe meeting, Background note.

Bangkok, 27-29 February 1996

1. General

As was recognized by all participants, the first Asia-Europe Meeting in Bangkok on 1-2 March was a major success. This first ASEM:

  • confirmed the clear will on both sides to develop further the essential relationship between Asia and Europe, based on a genuine partnership among equals;
  • laid the basis for a strengthened political dialogue, contributing to peace, global stability and prosperity;
  • paved the way for a reinforced economic dialogue and cooperation between the two regions, with a particular emphasis on the facilitation and promotion of two-way trade and investment flows;
  • opened exciting new avenues for cooperation, in a wide range of areas including development, global issues such as environment and crime, and in particular in strengthening mutual awareness and cultural links between Asia and Europe;
  • and confirmed the interest of expanding our dialogue on human values, in a constructive climate and respecting our cultural diversity.

While all participants agreed that ASEM should not be institutionalised, the timing and location of the next two ASEM summits has been fixed (London 1998 and South Korea 2000), and a substantial programme of work has been commenced in the different aspects of the ASEM dialogue.

Following on the specific decisions taken in Bangkok, the most immediate follow-up actions have been concentrated on the economic side of the ASEM process, with a customs cooperation meeting in June, and a major Business Forum in October. At the same time, significant progress has been made in developing initial proposals for follow-up in certain other areas of cooperation (notably with respect to the proposed Asia-Europe Environmental Technology Centre, and the Asia-Europe Foundation). Discussions have also commenced as to how the ASEM political dialogue might best be strengthened, and this will be taken further in preparing for the first ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting in February '97.

Nevertheless, it is important that the economic aspects of the ASEM process are not seen to overshadow the political side of our dialogue. Both aspects are essential components of the strengthened partnership between Europe and Asia which was established by the ASEM Summit.

2. Status of agreed follow-up actions

The decisions reached in Bangkok are set out in the Chairman's Statement, emphasising: the fostering of political dialogue the reinforcement of economic cooperation and the promotion of cooperation in other areas (notably science, education and development; environment and the fight against crime; and cultural cooperation)

Political dialogue

Specific follow-up actions agreed by the heads of state and government included:

  • the continuation of the ASEM process proper, through the 2nd and 3rd ASEM summits in the UK in 1998 (dates in April have been suggested) and in South Korea in 2000, assisted by a Foreign Ministers' meeting (to be held in Singapore in February 1997) and by a Senior Officials' Meeting (to be held in Dublin in December 1996);
  • the enhancement of our existing 'bilateral' dialogues (ASEAN Ministerial, PMC and ARF; dialogues with China, Japan and Korea);
  • the establishment of an ASEM dialogue on UN reform, in New York (the first meeting took place in New York on 21 June);
  • the establishment of networking and seminars among think-tanks on international and regional issues;
  • and, at an overall level, the possible establishment of a general 'Asia-Europe Cooperation Framework'.

Economic cooperation

Specific follow-up actions agreed by the heads of state and government included:

  • a customs cooperation meeting, which took place in Shenzhen on 21 June 1996. This agreed to strengthen cooperation among ASEM partners with regard to control or illicit trade in drugs, firearms and other items such as counterfeit goods, and to promote the harmonisation and simplification of customs procedures.
  • Two working groups have been established (one covering each of these main fields), and future meetings will be held anally. a government/private sector working group on investment promotion, which took place in Bangkok on 8-9 July 1996. Proposed by Thailand, this group is intended to produce an Action Plan for the facilitation and intensification of two-way investment flows between Asia and Europe, for consideration at the Economic Ministers' Meeting in 1997.

Discussions at the meeting focused on both the promotional and regulatory aspects of investment, and it is expected that a final paper will be produced around the end of the year, following comments on the group's recommendations from both the SOMTI and the Business Forum; a Senior Officials' Meeting on Trade and Investment (SOMTI), with the objective of promoting the liberalisation and facilitation of trade and investment. This was held in Brussels on 25 July 1996, and focused on two themes: WTO issues (including such topics as Uruguay Round implementation, ongoing work & built-in agenda, and other issues including trade & investment, trade & competition, trade & development, regional initiatives & RTAs, accession), with a view to assisting in preparation for the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Singapore in December 1996; and other measures to facilitate trade and investment, including in particular investment facilitation, customs cooperation, and trade facilitation. One important conclusion was that a Trade Facilitation Action Plan (TFAP) should be prepared, intended to reduce non-tariff barriers and promote trade opportunities between the two regions. It was also agreed that a second SOMTI meeting will be held in spring 1997, in Asia.

The creation of an ASEM Business Forum, the first meeting of which took place in Paris on 14-15 October 1996. Business leaders from the two regions considered how to further strengthen trade and investment flows between Asia and Europe, and gave particular emphasis to the need for a clear, stable, transparent and non-discriminatory framework for intensifying business operations, and for continued efforts to reduce barriers to trade in goods and services. Also emphasised was the importance of joint ventures and strategic alliances in enhancing business cooperation between the two regions, of training and staff exchanges in promoting business awareness, and of improved information flows in upgrading business opportunities for SMEs. The Business Forum also suggested that consideration be given to the possible establishment of a Europe-Asia infrastructure Fund.

In addition to these four initial actions, other activities in the field of ASEM economic cooperation include: a Business Conference, to be held in Indonesia in July 1997, and to be followed by further meetings of the Business Forum ( in Thailand in 1997, and proposed for the UK in 1998, and Korea in 1999) an Economic Ministers' Meeting in 1997 (which will probably be held in Tokyo, in autumn of 1997); a Finance Ministers' Meeting, proposed for autumn 1997 in Thailand; a study on economic synergy between Asia and Europe, for which Japan is elaborating proposals; and a study on integrated railway networks, both trans-Asia and trans-Europe, for which a paper is expected from Malaysia, (Also relevant here is a study of surface transport routes between Europe and Asia, currently being prepared by the Commission).

Cooperation in other areas

Specific follow-up actions agreed by the heads of state and government included:

  • the establishment of an Environmental Technology Centre in Thailand; a joint Thai/Japanese/European study of this proposal commenced in October 1996;
  • the establishment of an Asia-Europe Foundation in Singapore;
  • a concept paper has been prepared by Singapore and is currently under discussion among ASEM partners;
  • it is hoped that the Foundation may be launched on the occasion of the Foreign Ministers' Meeting in February 1997;
  • an Asia-Europe University Programme, for which a paper is awaited from Malaysia, and where the commission is also considering a possible contribution;
  • youth exchange programmes, for which both Japan and Austria are preparing proposals;
  • a proposed expert group on the promotion of technology exchanges;
  • China has presented an outline proposal on this topic, suggesting that the first expert group meeting might take place in the first half of 1997;
  • customs cooperation on drugs (taken up in the Shenzhen meeting of June 1996);
  • and proposals on cooperation for development of the Mekong Basin (for which a paper is awaited from Thailand).

A considerable amount of detailed work is obviously required before substantive proposals in these various field can be finalised, and the first concrete ASEM programmes are thus likely to be approved in 1997. More generally, it will be useful also to bear in mind possible supportive actions (in addition to the specific activities decided in Bangkok) which can help contribute to the main themes highlighted at the Summit.