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Localising Norms: EU-ASEAN Norm Diffusion

The years 2007 and 2009 were both monumental ones for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 2007, the 10 ASEAN member states came together to sign the ASEAN Charter, an unprecedented agreement calling for all member states to work towards closer cooperation. The Charter conferred legal personality on ASEAN, and established its institutional and legal framework. In 2009, an ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) was established in accordance with Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter to “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of ASEAN” (ASEAN, 2007). These changes are significant as several scholars have drawn parallels between ASEAN’s increasing institutionalisation, where there is an increasing presence of rules and norms that have “regulative, constitutive and procedural functions” (Duffield, 2007: 2), with that of the European Union (EU)’s. This is intriguing given the vast difference in the manner the two regional entities operate – the EU bases its foundation on democracy, human rights and freedom, the p             ooling of sovereignty, and the presence of supranational institutions, whereas ASEAN places a heavy emphasis on respecting a state’s sovereignty, intergovernmentalism, and the norm of non-interference in the affairs of other states.

Does ASEAN’s increasing institutionalisation necessarily indicate that the EU has been successful at norm diffusion? This discussion will be largely grounded in Amitav Acharya’s theoretical framework of norm localisation, which aims to explain the variation of norm acceptance based on the ability of local agents to reconstruct foreign norms to fit with cognitive priors and identities (Acharya, 2004). Specifically, I argue that the EU’s ability to influence ASEAN in adopting its norms has been largely dependent on whether the norms are congruent with ASEAN’s cultural values and norms; ASEAN exists as an active actor and is able to discern and adapt norms that it wishes to adopt.

I will focus on two areas to illustrate the variance in norm acceptance – the economic realm, and in the area of human rights and democracy. While the EU has been largely successful in influencing ASEAN economic integration norms, it has seen limited success in the latter due to an inability to reconcile the large divergence between EU norms and ASEAN’s own cognitive priors and identities.

Acharya: Norm Localisation and Institutional Change

In explaining why some transnational ideas and norms find greater acceptance in particular locales than others, Acharya proposes that an external norm is more likely to be adopted if it is congruent with a preexisting local normative order (Acharya, 2004: 239). He also stresses on how local agents are active recipients and go beyond a strict dichotomy of simply accepting or rejecting norms. Instead, they engage in a process of localisation as they assess and build congruence between foreign norms and local beliefs and institutions. The strength of the local norm directly correlates with the likelihood that foreign norms will be localised than to be indiscriminately accepted (Acharya, 2004: 248). Correspondingly, new external norms that may be deemed as unbeneficial for the legitimacy and efficacy of domestic institutions, or norms that may undermine the existing order, are likely to be rejected (Acharya, 2004: 258).

Economic Integration

The EU saw relative success in exporting its norms of economic integration to ASEAN as they were deemed to be compatible with existing ASEAN norms.

As set out in the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, one of the aims behind ASEAN’s formation was to accelerate the economic growth of the region to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of SEA nations (ASEAN). Taking after the EU in terms of working towards a single market would then be an extension of its prevailing identity. Further, ASEAN also fulfills Acharya’s description as an active agent in how it does not wholesale accept or imitate after the EU’s economic experience. Instead, it undergoes the process of adaptation by selecting elements that fit their preexisting normative structure – the pursuit of greater economic cooperation between states, and by rejecting those that do not – as seen in how ASEAN stops short of introducing a common currency or monetary policy. While the adoption of a common currency would help to increase ASEAN’s trading volume and its bargaining power, and is the ultimate indicator of economic integration, ASEAN’s reluctance to adopt a common currency can be attributed to the premium ASEAN states place on retaining the independence and sovereignty over their own monetary policies.

ASEAN was able to introduce EU-styled economic integration efforts as ASEAN was an active agent in discerning between changes that would fit their pre-existing local normative order, and those that may undermine their core principles.

Human Rights

The EU however saw limited success in promoting its norms of human rights due to the wide divergence between EU and ASEAN’s normative structures.

The case of Myanmar is able to illuminate the difference between ASEAN and EU’s approach to human rights. The EU had reacted strongly to Myanmar’s entry into ASEAN, placing an arms embargo on Myanmar, and in 1997, withdrew the Generalised System of Preferences for agricultural and industrial products for Myanmar (Laura, 2012: 15).

In contrast, ASEAN had chosen to pursue a policy of constructive engagement, choosing to defer to its norm of non-interference over the promotion of human rights or democracy. Violations of human rights or issues of democratic governance were seen as domestic affairs, and not to be on ASEAN’s collective agenda. It was clear that EU norms of human rights and democratisation were incompatible with ASEAN norms when the Thai Foreign Minister, Surin Pitsuwan, failed to get the ASEAN member states to reassess its norm of non-intervention. He had meant for countries affected by their neighbour’s domestic affairs that have an obvious external impact to be able to engage in flexible engagement, or to have the freedom to express their opinions and concerns in a open, frank and constructive manner that would not be considered as interference (Acharya, 2004: 261). Pitsuwan emphasized on how flexible engagement would render ASEAN more transparent and interdependent, which would aid in tackling a host of transnational issues such as financial crises to the proliferation of drugs. However, this was seen to be intrusive by the other ASEAN member states; Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar had urged for the region to be wary of concepts that may undermine the norm of interference in the name of humanitarian intervention (Acharya, 2004: 261). There was thus a clear divergence between ASEAN and EU norms that prevented local agents from adapting and adopting the external norms of human rights and democratic governance during this time period.

Cosmetic Changes?

It would however, be unfair to dismiss ASEAN as having had no progress at all in the domain of human rights. Nevertheless, where changes were made, most were cosmetic modifications rather than true substantive revisions as they largely allowed for ASEAN’s norm of non-interference to remain. For instance, ASEAN had issued a joint communiqué after the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, stating that the Foreign Ministers “reaffirmed ASEAN’s commitment to and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” (AMM, 1993: 3). They however also stated the need to do so while recognising the principles of respect for national sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference. As proposed by Acharya, the external norm hence underwent a certain degree of pruning and adjustment before it was made compatible with local beliefs and practices, even if at a superficial level. In this case, the statement issued allowed ASEAN to express a “commitment” to respecting human rights while still permitting its member states to retain the ASEAN Way of tackling human rights issues.


The framework of localisation proposed by Acharya has been useful in shedding light on why ASEAN has seen a variance in the acceptance of EU norms. Hence, we see greater and more successful norm diffusion in the economic realm, as opposed to that of human rights, which coincide with the fundamental ASEAN norm of non-interference. It also accounts for why foreign norms are seldom imported wholesale, but are subject to the redefinition and pruning of certain aspects by active local agents before they are accepted into the preexisting normative order. The case of ASEAN hence demonstrates how external, EU norms and mechanisms cannot simply be transplated as local norms and values remain a limiting factor. However, while this may create a sense of path dependency, what Acharya’s framework contributes to the discussion is the notion that institution change as a result of norm diffusion is expected to take a gradual and progressive route.

– Ng Li Ann

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