Coming a few months after the APEC NGO Forum is another big NGO gathering that focused on another inter-regional, inter-governmental forum - the Asia-Europe Meeting. The first Joint Asia-Europe NGO Conference was held in Bangkok on February 27-29, 1996 with the participation of over 350 representatives of Asian and European NGOs and people's organizations.
The NGO forum participants declared that ASEM, a first ever gathering of heads of state of 25 countries from the old and new bastions of economic growth, should not be concerned merely with geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations which favor well-resourced elite sectors. Instead, it should promote people-centered, socially just, economically equitable, ecologically sustainable and politically participatory development paradigm as the shared vision. This vision embodies respect for human rights and human dignity and nurture the spritual, moral, intellectual and cultural lives of all individuals and communities in both regions.
They noted, just like in the APEC NGO Forum declaration, that these very same governments have signed the United Nations' summit conference declarations from Rio to Beijing, committing themselves to the realization of human rights. And yet the issue of human rights is not in the agenda of ASEM. Human rights are divorced from the discussion of development narrowly viewed in economic terms.
They thus raised an appeal to the ASEM leaders to put the question of human rights as a central focus in order to address the problems occurring in both regions. Problems regarding displacement of farmers, fisherfolk, forest people; exploitation of children; trafficking of women and children, exploitation of labor (including migrant workers) were raised as some of the issues that need to be taken up. This is not to disregard the current problems relating to French-controlled territories in South Pacific, the East Timor question, the Burma issue, racism and xenophobia in Europe, among others.
They recommended that governments should recognize the role of the civil society in promoting human rights, human dignity and spiritual values. They urged that there be cooperation between Europe and Asia in the areas of human rights education and the development of human rights protection mechanisms.
As reported in the newspaper, ASEM came up with a communique that provides that:
"The dialogue among the participating countries should be conducted on the basis of mutual respect, equality, promotion of fundamental rights and, in accordance with the rules of international law and obligations, non-intervention, whether direct or indirect, in each other's internal affairs." (Japan Times, March 3, 1996)
The same newspaper report states that this formula was designed to satisfy the 15 members of the European Union by mentioning fundamental rights and placate the 10 Asian nations by stressing noninterference.
Hopefully, in the next round of the ASEM (Britain in 1998) more substantive discussions on human rights will take place.