The Security Era (1960s-1980s): The Cold War

ASEAN was established in the context of the Cold War struggle between the communist and liberal-capitalist blocs. At the time, the governments of all five founding members of ASEAN: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand were facing internal and external threats.

Communist insurgencies, military coups, territorial disputes and inter-ethnic conflicts were among some of the challenges facing the five states. The Indochina and US-Vietnam wars bordering Thailand, China’s Cultural Revolution, and the Soviet Union’s expansion of influence into Asia were also affecting regional stability.

The desire to insulate the region from the spread of communism and to bring outstanding colonial era conflicts under control prompted the five countries to sign the Bangkok Declaration in 1967 establishing ASEAN.

ASEAN worked in an informal and slow manner but succeeded in calming disputes amongst its members and restoring internal and regional political stability.

During this period, the authoritarian nature of the five ASEAN Member States caused it to be dubbed, “the club of dictators.” Human Rights were not a part of ASEAN discourse. 


ASEAN is Established


First ASEAN Summit 
Member States sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Declaration of ASEAN Concord. The Treaty provides that ASEAN will be governed by several principles, including:

  1. Respect for state sovereignty
  2. Freedom from external influence
  3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States
  4. Peaceful settlement of disputes

These principles reflect the founding Member States’ concerns to prevent foreign domination of their territories and prevent regional armed conflict.

The ASEAN Concord resolves to improve economic and social cooperation between the five Member States, and establish an ASEAN Secretariat.


Second ASEAN Summit
Member States agree to expand ASEAN’s economic relations with other countries. Representatives of Japan attend the Summit and express Japan’s intention to cooperate with ASEAN.


First ASEAN-European Economic Community (EEC) Ministerial Meeting
Informal talks between ASEAN and the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1972 made the EEC the first dialogue partner of ASEAN. Cooperation between ASEAN and EEC is later formalized in a 1980 agreement.

ASEAN Enlargement (1980s - 1990s)

After two decades and the end of the Cold War, ASEAN began to develop rapidly from a regional security organization into a regional economic grouping. In 1992, ASEAN initiated the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and expanded its membership to its current 10 members.

In the mid-1990s the Asian economic crisis pushed ASEAN towards greater economic integration and brought about a change from authoritarian to democratic rule in Indonesia.

The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights prompted the first official recognition of human rights principles from ASEAN. During this period, the majority of ASEAN Member States ratified the Convention on Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, few steps were taken to institutionalize human rights within ASEAN’s formal structure.


Brunei Darussalam joins ASEAN


Third ASEAN Summit is held in Manila, the Philippines. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation is amended to allow ratification by other Southeast Asian States.


ASEAN Adopts the Declaration of the Advancement of Women in ASEAN


ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) is created during the Fourth ASEAN Summit. AFTA aims to eliminate trade tariffs within ASEAN in order to make ASEAN products more competitive and to attract more foreign investment.


Joint Communiqué of the 26th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) endorses the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action and states that ASEAN should consider the establishment of a regional human rights institution.


ASEAN establishes the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to promote security interdependence in the Asia-Pacific region. 


Vietnam joins ASEAN

The Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty is signed by ASEAN Member States.

ASEAN Summits begin to be held on a yearly basis. For a list of all Summits, click here.

The Human Rights Committee of LAWASIA creates the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism to advocate for the creation of an ASEAN Human Rights Body. The Working Group is a coalition of national working groups comprised of representatives of government institutions, parliamentary human rights committees, academics, and NGOs.


Lao PDR and Myanmar join ASEAN

First meeting of ASEAN Plus Three or the "East Asia Forum" that includes the 10 ASEAN Member States and China, Japan and South Korea.

First ASEAN-China Summit convened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Second Informal ASEAN Summit is held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A number of initiatives are launched in response to the Asian economic crisis, notably the ASEAN Vision 2020, which commits Member States to achieving greater regional stability and economic integration by the year 2020.


Sixth ASEAN Summit is held in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. ASEAN Heads of State adopt the Hanoi Declaration and Hanoi Plan of Action for implementing the ASEAN Vision 2020.


Cambodia joins ASEAN

Towards the ASEAN Community - A Single Market ASEAN (2000s-2015)

The economic crisis of the 1990s, coupled with the rise of the economies of China and India, caused the ASEAN Member States to focus on economic integration in order to maintain their economic competitiveness. ASEAN concluded free trade agreements with Japan, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia-New Zealand.

The ASEAN Charter entered into force in December 2008, marking ASEAN’s transition from a loose regional grouping into a rule-based regional organization.

This was a period of human rights “activism” for ASEAN, with the adoption of numerous human rights declarations and establishment of three human rights institutions.


First Workshop of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism involving government, and civil society representatives on the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Body. The workshop becomes an annual event, jointly organized with the host country’s Foreign Ministry, to discuss what kind of human rights mechanism ASEAN should adopt. ASEAN takes note of the various concept notes resulting from these workshops.

Declaration on the Commitments for Children in ASEAN is adopted by the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Social Welfare. The Declaration specifically refers to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Declaration of ASEAN Concord II is adopted at the 9th ASEAN Summit. ASEAN Member States commit to forming an “ASEAN Community” comprised of three pillars, namely; security, economic, and socio-cultural cooperation.


The Vientiane Action Program (VAP) is agreed upon at the 10th ASEAN Summit. This plan for ASEAN integration includes the promotion of human rights under the ASEAN Security Community. VAP lists a number of priority actions such as the elaboration of an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers and the establishment of an ASEAN commission on the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children.

Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons Particularly Women and Children is adopted by ASEAN Heads of State.

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region is adopted by ASEAN Foreign Ministers.


First meeting of the ASEAN Plus Six, also called the East Asia Summit, comprising the ASEAN Member States plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.


ASEAN Charter is signed. Article 14 requires the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Body.

Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers is adopted by ASEAN Heads of State. A Committee is established to oversee its implementation.


The ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is inaugurated.

Roadmap for the ASEAN Community 2009–2015, is adopted. This includes the Economic Community Blueprint (approved in 2007), the Political-Security Community Blueprint, the Socio- Cultural Community Blueprint, and the Second Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan. This Replaces the 2004 Vientiane Action Program. The Political-Security Community Blueprint includes a commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights.


The ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights and Women and Children is established under the ASEAN Social-Cultural Community.


The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is adopted at the 21st ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. Providing limitation of rights in the general principle is one of the main reasons why the declaration is criticised by human rights defenders for failing to meet minimum international human rights standards.