Building bridges from Asia to Africa the right way

Building bridges from Asia to Africa the right way

A replica of the 'treasure ship' of 15th-century explorer Zheng He is under construction at a hall in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu province. The Chinese admiral led a series of voyages from East Asia to East Africa from the year 1405. (Photo: AFP)
A replica of the 'treasure ship' of 15th-century explorer Zheng He is under construction at a hall in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu province. The Chinese admiral led a series of voyages from East Asia to East Africa from the year 1405. (Photo: AFP)

The quest to build bridges between Asia and Africa is longstanding. A Chinese Admiral -- Zheng He -- led a series of voyages from East Asia to East Africa, down to Kenya and possibly Zanzibar, from the year 1405. The ships he navigated were enormous -- about 400 feet long and 100 feet wide (122 metres by 30.5m) -- especially when compared with Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria, which was about 70 feet long. For centuries, people have also migrated and traded between the two regions.

What then are the channels of cooperation between the two regions, at least in the legal field? One entry point has been the Asian African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO), dating back to the 1950s. It is a forum of some 50 countries from the two regions and it deals with the progressive development of international law, namely, the law among nations which regulates the conduct between states and between states and other stakeholders.

Obviously, there are implications for policy and practice, especially as some of the most sensitive issues concerning peace, security, human rights, democracy, and development are entangled with the two regions. Asia is the origin of the three largest refugee outflows and related internal displacements. Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar are familiar names in both regional and global terms. Africa has been the scene of many armed conflicts, the roots of which can be traced back to the inequitable process of colonisation.

The AALCO now has a work agenda covering nearly 20 areas ranging from human rights in Islam to cyberspace issues. More specifically, the natural convergence of the two regions via the AALCO throughout the decades can be seen in five areas, notably: support for the United Nations' (UN) International Law Commission (ILC); protection of refugees; rights of the Occupied Palestinian Territories; sustainable development/environment; and international trade and investment.

The issue of the most immediate concern to the AALCO, which is now interrelated with the ILC, is rising sea levels. This is of critical relevance to island states, which may be sinking due to global warming, climate change and sea-borne inundations. While much will depend on prevention and mitigation, a key concern is the notion of statehood (and whether that will be lost as the island disappears) and the plight of persons displaced by that oceanic rise. On a related front, the UN's Human Rights Committee has already advocated that people displaced by rising sea levels are protected by their right not to be pushed back into areas where they face danger, a policy known as non-refoulement. This can be enhanced by international solidarity from this region and beyond.

Regarding the protection of refugees, the AALCO has concretised various principles now known as the "Bangkok Principles on Status and Treatment of Refugees", drafted in 1966 and adopted in 2001. Given that the majority of Asian countries are not parties to the International Refugee Convention, the "Bangkok Principles" offer non-binding soft laws to guide the region as to how they should approach refugee movements. It takes a cue from Africa's experience of protecting not only victims of political persecution but also victims of warfare. It reaffirms the "non-refoulement" principle while advocating the right of refugees to return to their country of origin and to claim compensation, also not forgetting to deal with the root causes of the problem.

In relation to Palestine, the heart of the issue is the situation in the Occupied Territories. Generally, Asia and Africa have been strong supporters of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people. Yet, a key question in recent years has been the obstructive wall built around Jerusalem that has blocked off access between Palestinian families nearby. There have been decades of rights violations in regard to the West Bank and Gaza, which have been condemned by the international community, but for which solutions remain elusive due to political intransigence.

Most recently, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was requested by the UN General Assembly to advise on the following question: "What are the legal consequences arising from the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, from its prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character, and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures?"

In an earlier case before the ICJ concerning the cited wall, there were already references to various international humanitarian legal principles prohibiting forced displacements of the local population (except out of military necessity) and against the movement of settlers into the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These concerns are also voiced by Asian and African countries.

Regarding sustainable development and environmental protection, a host of issues are closely aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs have been well-received by Asia and Africa; they now await fuller commitment and resourcing as a result of Covid-19. A huge impediment is the global and local debt situation, which requires creative ways to offer debt relief, such as cancelling or adjusting them, with equitable budgetary allocations and other incentives. Meanwhile, global warming and climate change are guided extensively by international treaties, and the crunch remains effective implementation, together with behavioural changes by the causative countries and assistance for developing nations.

On trade and investment, we see a range of bilateral and multilateral treaties shaping relations between states and also between states and investors. A sensitive area is dispute settlement and the operationalisation of the World Trade Organization's Appellate Panel. Given that many investment treaties bypass local courts and opt for international arbitration, there are issues of fairness and transparency in relation to investment practices, arbitrators, and compensation awards, which amount to billions of dollars. The situation has been compounded by the war in Ukraine, agreements on energy cooperation conflicting with environmental agreements, the crypto fallout, and the non-performance of contractual obligations due to the pandemic.

The two regions, through the AALCO, have plenty to do on their doorsteps, requiring sound leadership, straddling political polarities, and inviting intercultural wisdom.

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

Do you like the content of this article?