Asean chief charts new UN course
Shortly after last month's Asean foreign ministerial retreat in Vietnam's Nha Trang, Secretary General Dato Lim Jock Hoi flew to New York. He was instructed by Asean foreign ministers to brief the UN Security Council on the bloc's role in cooperating with the UN, regional and subregional organisations to maintain international peace and security.
For Mr Lim, it was an unusual assignment; Asean has never done this before in its 52 years history. When Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh raised the idea in Nha Trang, there was some uneasiness among his Asean colleagues in the room. The concern was that the unprecedented practice would open a Pandora's Box among other UNSC members, which could in future divide Asean on sensitive issues. To play it safe, the Asean ministers agreed the UNSC briefing on Jan 30 would be a one-off event without any documents detailing outcomes or questions and answers.
In his first foreign policy speech after Vietnam took the Asean and UNSC helms in January, Mr Minh outlined four major tasks: to champion the centrality of UN and uphold multilateralism and international law; to promote trade liberalisation and economic integration and connectivity; to make more active contributions to the settlement of regional and global challenges; and finally to realise the Asean theme of "cohesive and responsive" for construction of a strong and united Asean Community.
The move was significant given Vietnam was playing a dual role, serving as the January chair of the UN Security Council as well as the 2020 Asean chair. This is Vietnam's second stint as a non-permanent Security Council member, the first coming in 2007-2008.
The briefing went well with key members of the UNSC commending and praising the Asean way for helping to maintain peace and stability in the world. Mr Lim used the briefing to highlight the bloc's promotion of peace and security over the past five decades through Asean instruments, Asean-led mechanisms and its widely practised norms based on dialogue and consultation. He also managed to highlight eight other important aspects of Asean efforts towards international harmony and prosperity: i) economic integration and inclusive development as building blocks for peace and security; ii) conflict resolution and prevention; iii) addressing transnational challenges including counter-terrorism and violent extremism; iv) advancing women, peace and security agendas; v) addressing climate change and actively promoting sustainable development goals including through complementary initiatives; vi) tapping into the potential of the digital economy and the fourth industrial revolution; vii) promoting an Asean smart cities network and enhancing regional cybersecurity cooperation.
In response, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed appreciation for the longstanding contributions of Asean members to UN peacekeeping operations, particularly the important role of women peacekeepers. He also looked forward to increased cooperation with Asean in various areas including peace and reconciliation; women, peace and security; human rights by working together with the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights; and counter-terrorism and prevention of extremist violence. Other areas included border management and transnational organised crime; early warning arrangements and threat analysis, cybersecurity, climate change, energy security and disaster management including conflict and human-induced calamities, and a roadmap of synergies to meet the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as outlined at the 10th UN Asean summit last November.
During the briefing, Vietnam's ambassador to the UN, Dan Dinh Quy, who also served as January's chair of the UN Security Council, pinpointed two important roles played by Asean in the UN context. First, as a regional organisation, Asean has a role to play in accordance with chapter VIII of the UN Charter. Second, both Asean and the UN support the importance of multilateralism and upholding the principles of international law. He also commended the Asean way of promoting peace and stability by "shaping norms that build trust and confidence in the region".
Three transnational issues were touched upon at the briefing. On the Rakhine situation, some UNSC members noted the importance of the Asean role in providing humanitarian assistance and facilitating repatriation efforts to ensure voluntary, safe and dignified return of the displaced persons to their places of origin in Myanmar. In other comments, some UNSC members welcomed the efforts of Asean in advancing discussion with China on the code of conduct in the South China Sea and reiterated the importance of peaceful resolution to territorial disputes in conformity with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Finally, UNSC members also mentioned the Asean role in working for sustainable peace and the complete and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. At the briefing, UNSC members such as China, Russia and Germany, who are also Asean dialogue partners, highlighted their growing ties with the bloc. Other members such as the UK and France, who are currently aspiring to a formal partnership with Asean, noted their increased engagement with the grouping.
Judging from its past five weeks as Asean chair coupled with its UNSC role, Vietnam is being proactive and mincing no words in fulfilling its core pledge -- raising the efficiency of cooperation and comprehensive partnership between the the regional bloc and the UN.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is veteran journalist on regional affairs.