Address given by H. E. Mr. Rodolfo C. Severino, Secretary-General

of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,

at the ASEAN Scholars’ Roundtable

organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation

and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs

Singapore, 3 July 2000


I am gratified to have a part in your examination of the concepts of sovereignty and intervention. The tension between these two concepts is emerging as an important issue of our time. I suspect that ASEAN will have to take an increasingly closer look at it, as our economies become more integrated and our societies more inter-connected.

This is why it is good that the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation thought of getting young ASEAN scholars together to think, together, about this emerging issue. It is the coming generation that will have to grapple with it in ASEAN.

In the history of human society, the concept of national sovereignty and the nation-state is of fairly recent vintage. Like many of today’s political institutions, the system of nation-states, together with the notion of national sovereignty, was first formally put in place in Europe, in this case by the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. The Peace of Westphalia put an end to the Thirty Years’ War and recognized the independence of each state of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the principal protagonists of that war.

While periodically fighting among themselves on their continent, the European states also competed to gain access to resources, expand their power, and bring glory to themselves through the conquest or domination of territories in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Arabia. By the 19th century, yearnings for nationhood stirred in the colonies and other areas under European domination, leading to the emergence of independent nations on the European model in much of Latin America.

Toward the end of World War I, the American President, Woodrow Wilson, issued his fourteen points, which included people’s right to self-determination, the end of colonialism and a League of Nations to prevent and counter aggression by one state against another. Ironically, the United States Senate blocked America’s membership in the League mainly on the ground that it would curtail American sovereignty.

It was not until the upheaval in international relations brought about by World War II that national sovereignty came within the reach of peoples around the world – through revolution, the withdrawal of exhausted colonial powers or the ministrations of the new United Nations. The late 1940s, the 1950s and especially the 1960s saw a parade of ex-colonies joining the ranks of independent states and the United Nations.

The right to sovereign nationhood was enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, which proclaims among the UN’s purposes: “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. . . .” According to Article 2 of the Charter, the UN and its members are to pursue its purposes according to certain principles, which include:

“1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members. . . .

“4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Order Out of Chaos

The universal application of the concept of national sovereignty was meant to bring international order out of the chaos of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, the United Nations was given the right, indeed the duty, to take “enforcement measures” against any state in case of “any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”

Significantly, none of the five powers with permanent seats on the UN Security Council was – and is – subject to enforcement action by the Security Council or any other action that the power concerned deemed to be contrary to its interests. This is, of course, by virtue of the so-called P5’s right of veto, the ultimate assertion of their sovereignty. On the other hand, despite the high-minded strictures of the UN Charter, the sovereignty of many nations, particularly of the newly independent ones, was promptly violated, largely by the major powers engaged in the Cold War, when each protagonist sought to subvert the internal conditions of third countries in order to win them over to its side.

For precisely this reason, the new nation-states clung even more tightly to the notion of national sovereignty as their only legal tool to protect their newly won independence and to stay out of the Cold War. Thus, the five principles of peaceful co-existence promulgated at the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung included “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”

In Southeast Asia, the Bangkok Declaration that established ASEAN proclaimed the founding members’ determination “to ensure their stability and security from external interference in any form or manifestation in order to preserve their national identities in accordance with the ideals and aspirations of their peoples.”

“Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another” is one of the principles explicitly underlying ASEAN’s 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, as it did the 1971 declaration on Southeast Asia as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, another of ASEAN’s landmark documents.

Contrary to the assumption running through many foreign commentaries on Southeast Asian affairs today, the principle of non-interference is not unique to ASEAN. Virtually all regional associations adhere to it, it is enshrined in the UN Charter, it underpins the entire inter-state system. The reason is clear. National sovereignty and its handmaiden, the principle of non-interference, are the only conceptual bulwarks protecting the small and the weak from domination by the powerful. In the absence of a supranational government, it is indispensable to any sort of international order.

It is important to make this point, because the question is often asked: Does the conceptual validity, indeed the reality, of national sovereignty endure in today’s world of globalization, the Internet and international NGOs?

The impulse of states to dominate others remains strong. Indeed, while, as I stated in the beginning, the notion of national sovereignty is relatively new, the practice of one human group intervening in the affairs of another has been with us since human beings organized themselves in clans or tribes. The urge to intervene arose from any number of motives – access to resources, control of strategic territory, the acquisition and manifestation of power, pre-emptive self-protection.

Today, the case for intervention in the domestic affairs of states is usually presented in more idealistic and less cynical terms than they were applied during the Cold War. In the case of armed intervention, the justification now is to protect people from massive atrocities that the state either is unable to prevent or perpetrates itself. And because the principle of nati

onal sovereignty is universally recognized as a right, the need to intervene has to be reconciled with the demands of sovereignty.

Shared Humanity

The pressure on governments to protect people from internal violence or oppression arises from any combination of sources. A critical one is the heightened awareness among people of the humanity that they share with others in the world, a feeling magnified by technological developments in mass communications.

In remarks at a regional seminar on international humanitarian law last month, I said:

“People’s humanitarian impulse with respect to armed conflict has been intensified by the entry into the world’s living rooms of images, in living color, of rotting corpses, starving babies, stumps of limbs hacked off or blasted away, streams of desperate refugees, the physical and human devastation. Graphic descriptions and passionate advocacy on the Internet have had the same effect. Non-governmental organizations that have taken upon themselves the cause of the victims of atrocities have mastered the art of getting media attention and the skill to use the Internet.

“All this has sharpened many people’s awareness of their solidarity with one another, of the humanity that they share. If people are all equally human, certain moral norms, norms of universal justice, apply to them all.”

Skillful lobbying in open societies by exiled elements of dissident communities has played upon these humanitarian sentiments to good effect. In such societies, the pressures thus heightened have created domestic constituencies on behalf of intervention in one form or another. Sometimes these pressures go against the government’s own perception of the national interest. In some cases, governments may use humanitarian impulses as a cover for intervention that is actually undertaken for national policy objectives. On the other hand, there are also cases in which tyrants hide their cruelties behind the shield of state sovereignty.

Intervention: Forms and Conditions

Intervention in recent times has taken five principal forms – rhetorical and diplomatic gestures and pressures, economic sanctions, legal instruments like the international criminal tribunals and the International Criminal Court, covert action, and armed force.

The current thinking seems to be that international intervention is justified when human rights violations by a state, or another entity exercising power, is so egregious and so broadly destructive as to call for the international community to protect the victims. The question, of course, is: Who decides? There is a tendency for powerful states or groups of them to represent themselves as the “international community.”

This is why armed intervention has to be carried out with the authority of the United Nations Security Council if a modicum of international law and order is to be maintained; indeed, if the concept of national sovereignty is to continue to protect weak states from domination by the strong.

I would add that the intervention must have a reasonable prospect of success, that the means used must be proportionate to the evil being addressed, that there are no better alternatives, that the measures taken must not inflict long-term harm on the people meant to be protected or on other countries and peoples, that the cure must not be worse than the disease.

The international community must also develop the capacity to discern whether humanitarian intervention is not being used merely for national policy purposes. The international community must be able to recognize whether intervention measures such as diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions are undertaken largely to satisfy narrow domestic constituencies irrespective of their effectiveness in attaining the proclaimed ends.

How does all this apply to Southeast Asia?

Some commentators have criticized ASEAN for its policy of non-intervention, as if this policy were ASEAN’s exclusive preserve. Most recently, this criticism was directed specifically at ASEAN’s alleged failure to deal effectively with the violence in East Timor, a failure, it is said, that stemmed from ASEAN’s absolutist adherence to the non-interference principle.

Let us go beyond vague, general assertions and look at the facts.

As early as 1982, the United Nations Secretary-General started to address the status of East Timor in discussions with Indonesia and Portugal. In the latter half of 1998, these discussions gained momentum, as Indonesia and Portugal seemed to be nearing agreement on a system of limited autonomy for the territory. In January 1999, President Habibie surprised everyone by declaring Indonesia’s willingness to hold consultations with the people of East Timor and ascertain whether they would accept autonomy within Indonesia. If they rejected autonomy, the East Timorese would be offered independence.

ASEAN and East Timor

In May 1999, Indonesia and Portugal agreed to entrust the UN Secretary-General with the responsibility for conducting the consultations. On 30 August, the consultations were held. After the results were announced a few days later, violence erupted through large parts of East Timor and grew steadily worse. On 12 September, as a UN Security Council mission to Indonesia was ending its visit, the ASEAN leaders who were in Auckland, New Zealand, for the APEC leaders meeting gathered among themselves and addressed the developments in East Timor. At that gathering, Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita, representing President Habibie, stated Indonesia’s desire for substantial ASEAN participation in a multinational force that the UN might form, upon Indonesia’s invitation, to restore order and security in East Timor.

Shortly afterwards, the UN Security Council authorized the multinational force known as Interfet. ASEAN countries that were able to do so contributed significantly to the force. On 1 February 2000, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, or UNTAET, took over from Interfet. An ASEAN national, Lieutenant General Jaime de los Santos of the Philippines, was appointed to take command of the peacekeeping force. Some ASEAN countries contributed to UNTAET and its force to the best of their ability.

Two qualities characterized the ASEAN response to the crisis in East Timor. The first was that actions by ASEAN members were carried out within the UN framework. This was only to be expected in the light of the fact that the East Timor issue had been before the UN for almost two decades and the UN had been facilitating the Indonesia-Portugal talks on it. Indeed, those talks were leading to agreement on autonomy for East Timor when the crisis of 1999 erupted. Moreover, under the circumstances, only the UN could legitimately and capably undertake the peacekeeping operation and mobilize the massive resources necessary for it.

The second quality was that ASEAN – and, indeed, UN – actions had to be carried out with Indonesia’s consent. In this case, ASEAN members, including Indonesia, undertook consultations, arrived at consensus, and let individual members decide what specific contributions to make to the UN effort. Any other course would not have been possible, desirable or effective.

Dealing With Haze

Another problem for which the policy of non-intervention was blamed was the haze that enveloped parts of Southeast Asia in 1997 as a result of land and forest fires in Sumatra and on the island of Borneo. The incidence and threat of haze is a classic example of events in one country doing great harm to others in the same region. The fires, set mostly by concessionaries as the cheapest way to clear forests for conversion to plantations, had been a growing problem, particularly in the dry periods of El Nino. However, it was only when the problem attained catastrophic proportions in 1997 that most people became conscious of its potential for grievous harm.

After this happened, ASEAN worked together to address the problem. It mobilized its own and international resources to prevent the disaster from recurring on a similar scale. ASEAN Ministers met frequently to engage in very intensive and frank discussions, reviewing the Regional Haze Action Plan, drawn up in December 1997, and giving directions to a Haze Technical Task Force on its implementation. A special unit devoted exclusively to the haze problem was set up in the ASEAN Secretariat. National Haze Action Plans and Immediate Implementation Plans were drawn up embodying detailed measures for action. These plans include the mobilization of fire-fighting teams in detected “hot spots” to prevent fires from spreading. In accordance with these plans, fire-fighting teams have conducted periodic exercises in Sumatra and Borneo. The ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Centre in Singapore has given sharper focus to the detection of “hot spots,” disseminating its findings more extensively and more quickly.

In this program, ASEAN has received valuable support from the Asian Development Bank, the UN Environment Programme and the Australian government.

ASEAN adopted a zero-burning policy. Members of the Haze Technical Task Force, Indonesian officials and the ASEAN Secretariat met plantation owners and forest concessionaires and firmly conveyed the zero-burning policy to them. President Wahid marshaled the prestige and resources of his office to dissuade the concessionaires from their destructive activities. The central government provided substantial funds for fire-fighting operations. Last March, the mobilization of the fire-fighting arrangements prevented forest fires from spreading. Meanwhile, ASEAN is exploring the possibility of an ASEAN agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution.

Again, the ASEAN approach to this problem has been to work together, particularly with the country most directly involved, and, if necessary, in cooperation with the international community.

Today, because of population expansion, technological advances in transportation and communications, and the increasing integration of economies, developments inside one country tend to affect other countries more deeply and more rapidly than before. Perhaps, ASEAN will now have to anticipate developments earlier and act upon them more quickly. In the case of the haze problem, there is now the Haze Technical Task Force and the fire-fighting arrangements on the ground keeping a close eye on “hot spots” and ready to respond. In dealing with possible financial trouble in the region, the ASEAN Finance Ministers have set up a surveillance mechanism that includes a process of frequent peer review. ASEAN has also agreed with China, Japan and Korea to work out a mechanism for mutual financial support in case of balance-of-payments problems and the like. To address political developments more expeditiously, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers are looking into a “troika” system, as proposed by the ASEAN leaders. Other mechanisms may be needed for other problems in other areas.

The general approach is based on dialogue, consultation, cooperation, engagement and interaction. In the language of the current discussion, engagement may be more “flexible,” interaction “enhanced.” But engagement and interaction are maintained.

There is no other way. In the real world, especially in the exceedingly diverse world of Southeast Asia, a balance has to be sought – and constantly adjusted – between what is desirable and what is possible, between the ideal and the practical, between ambition and reality, between desired ends and available means, between international involvement and national sovereignty. Compromises will have to be made. Progress would, in most cases, be incremental. Bilateral issues are best left to the two parties to deal with, unless they agree otherwise.

In my view, except in extreme cases in which the international community may have to be mobilized through the United Nations, the welfare of people, particularly in Southeast Asia today, is better served through economic interaction and integration, through the opening of societies to one another, than through blatant intervention and ostentatious gestures, which seldom work anyway. Interaction, integration, cooperation – this is what ASEAN is largely about.

There is no drama here; this is not headline stuff. But, in Southeast Asia today, it is the only way.