ASEAN’s Journey in Countering Terrorism

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was launched in 1967 and has a membership of ten countries. Its primary purposes include the promotion of regional peace and resilience and strengthening internal and external collaboration on matters of common interest. Of particular relevancy to regional counter-terrorism efforts, the Organization’s Charter contains as its purposes: “To maintain and improve peace, security and stability and further boost peace-oriented values in the region” and “To support democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to advance and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, with due respect to the rights and obligations of the Member States of ASEAN.”

The ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime first recognised the demand for counter-terrorism cooperation. It was adopted on December 20, 1997, when the Organization decided to develop the “scope of Member Countries’ measures against transnational crime such as terrorism”.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks,  the ASEAN adopted the Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism. One of its main aims is to strengthen regional cooperation by sharing best practices and data/intelligence, increasing regional counter-terrorism capability, and examining how to incorporate international anti-terrorism patterns within ASEAN mechanisms for fighting international terrorism. This was observed in 2002 by the ASEAN Work Programme to Contain Transnational Crime. It provides operational guidelines for regional collaboration. The importance of promoting the goals and actions determined in the 2001 Declaration of Joint Action was restated in 2002 following the terrorist aggression in Bali, Indonesia and the Philippines, which harmed the lives of 216 civilians and wounded a further 419 people.

Concerning binding mechanisms, the ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism was adopted on 13 January 2007. It is the main instrument for strengthening regional counter-terrorism efforts. Before its adoption, there was debate regarding whether or not a reliable regional convention was required due to the existence of the universal mechanisms against terrorism, together with binding obligations completed by the Security Council Resolution. However, the Convention was eventually arranged and adopted in response to international tension.

The Convention has many notable characteristics. One is that it does not include a regional description of terrorism or terrorist offences, depending instead on the meaning of ‘offence’ described within the universal instruments. Another is that its requirements are generally broadly drafted, echoing the legal and political consensus baseline. Interestingly, article VIII, which ensures the right of ‘fair treatment’ to suspected terrorists whilst recognising the relevance and importance of international law, highlights the critical role of domestic law first. This recalls that not all ASEAN Member States are partakers of global or regional human rights law treaties, such as the ICCPR and the ASEAN Convention.

Such focus on national legal frameworks is thoughtful of broader challenges encountered by ASEAN in supporting regional cooperation in that a number of its Member States consider terrorism essentially as a domestic matter. Other essential differences exist, including national counter-terrorism doctrine: some Member States adopt a more aggressive direction to countering terrorism, whilst others generally react through a criminal justice paradigm. Even where law enforcement measures have been embraced, national differences in how they have been analysed and implemented can pose barriers to more effective regional cooperation. Some commentators question whether there is a market for ASEAN to revise and reframe its counter-terrorism policies and strategy to recall the reality that terrorist threats and actions within Southeast Asia are both a local and global phenomenon.

Since 2014, ASEAN has also sought to react to the regional dangers posed by foreign fighters, pulled from within its membership, joining battles in Iraq and Syria, who then return to the area. This was highlighted in the 2014 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement on the Advancement of Violence and Brutality Committed by Terrorist/Extremist outfits in Iraq and Syria and the following 2015 Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the increase of Radicalization and Violent Extremism. As such, except for the 2007 Convention, results by ASEAN on counter-terrorism matters are mainly political and non-legally binding, nevertheless forming an essential aspect of regional and international counter-terrorism measures to further the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy goals.

During the ASEAN Summit in November 2017, a central principle of the dialogues was on extremism and terrorism. During the Summit, approval was granted to the Manila Declaration to Counter the Increase of Radicalization and Violent Extremism, which was embraced during the 11th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime carried in the Philippines, as well as the revised ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism. 

Through the Manila Declaration, ASEAN is aiming to “fight radicalisation and violent extremism, in particular, those which lead to terrorism in all types and manifestations, through the prevention of radicalisation, funding, recruitment, and mobilization of individuals into terrorist outfits” . Especially, the ASEAN Law Ministers were also involved during the Summit “progressing … the implementation of various programmes and moves to enhance legal cooperation in ASEAN and in relevant the discussions to elevate the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty to an ASEAN instrument and efforts to finalise the text of the Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty “

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