FM Attends ASEAN Preventive Diplomacy Roundtable

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Last Month on 20-21 March 2014, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) attended the ASEAN Asian Regional Forum (ARF) Roundtable for Preventive Diplomacy in New Zealand. The event brought together experts including heads of security sectors, diplomats, senior officials, academics, university professors, and past and current foreign affairs ministers and ministers of defense. Attendees hailed from 22 countries representing various parts of the globe including Europe, North America, and Asia. This year marks the first time FM has been invited to attend the event, signaling the government’s commitment towards involving Civil Society Organizations in national development dialogue and formation. Timor’s participation in the ARF also signals the government’s increased emphasis on discussing ASEAN issues and becoming a proactive member of the ASEAN community.

FM was pleased to be part of the discussion about preventive diplomacy; the main topics of discussion focused on creating the structural conditions between state actors that make violence and conflict less likely. FM applauds the movement within policy circles in the Asian region pushing for the development of these preventative structures, rather than the last minute scrambling that often takes place when conflict looms. FM believes that this approach represents the best strategy for maintaining peace within the Asian region. Timor-Leste itself would be well served in utilizing this form of diplomacy, in which the biggest deterrence to war and conflict is no longer the size of a country or its army. Furthermore, this type of diplomacy can only extend regional co-operation within ASEAN and lead to greater unforeseen benefits through increased co-operation.

What is Preventive Diplomacy?

ASEAN defines preventive diplomacy as achieving the following:
– Preventing severe disputes and conflicts from arising between states
– Preventing conflicts from escalating into armed confrontation
– Limiting the intensity of violence and humanitarian problems arising from such conflicts and preventing them from spreading geographically.

As one can see, ASEAN’s definition of preventive diplomacy is in line with the principles of the organization and the ideals of the “ASEAN Way”. This approach utilizes a voluntary framework (rather than coercive) that values a respect for sovereignty and non-interference. This has meant from the outset that ASEAN’s previous forays into preventative diplomacy have been informal, unstructured and relied on creating the space where diplomacy can happen. An example of this model being applied can be seen during the Thai-Cambodia border dispute in 2011. In this case the ASEAN chair at the time, Indonesia, engaged in what is referred to as a “good offices” approach. In this approach, Indonesia provided all the facilities and mediated to engage in a shuttle diplomacy that brought the two sides together in agreement. The success of this case was due more to the engagement of Indonesia as chair rather than any formalized preventive diplomacy model.

This can be seen in stark contrast with the way other regions view and conduct preventive diplomacy. Africa has arguably a leader in preventive diplomacy implementation, utilizing a formalized structure included in the African Union (AU), with a Peace and Security Council (PSC), African Standby Force (ASF), A Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), The Panel of The Wise and the Peace Fund. Other regions have differing methods for employing their preventive diplomacy policies, but generally keep to a formalized structure.

While ASEAN and ARF lack these formalized structures in preventive diplomacy, the “ASEAN Way” sets a framework in which preventive diplomacy can occur. The “ASEAN Way” with its respect for sovereignty of its member states and principles of non-interference and non-coercion has created the fundamental building block of preventive diplomacy: confidence and trust between nations. This informal, highly trust-based diplomacy has so far worked well in “operational prevention”, the short-term prevention of conflict and escalation of violence. This approach however lacks robustness and fails to identify and attempt to solve any root causes of any potential conflicts. This robustness is needed in a populous and porous region such as South East Asia. The “ASEAN Way” however has instilled in member states a confidence in ASEAN and has created the conditions in which the cause of preventive diplomacy can be advanced. The first step along along this path has been taken at the most recent Asian Regional Forum, with participants identifying this need and deciding that a corps of diplomats trained in these methods must be formed to advance this cause.

While Fundasaun Mahein applauds these initiatives, it would also like to warn against the common flaw of these conferences becoming a “Talk Shop”. Too often the best of intentions can be wasted in a fog of inertia. FM would like to remind all participants that to maintain the integrity of the Asian Regional Forum, discussion must be met by concrete action. Despite the fact that a concrete date has not yet been set, we are happy to note that a training camp in preventive diplomacy is to be held in China in coming October, drawing on the foundation laid in this year’s Asian Regional Forum.

Timor-Leste’s Contribution to the ARF

Fundasaun Mahein would also like to contribute its experiences to the members of the Asian Regional Forum in regards to the positive role preventive diplomacy has played in Timor-Leste’s relationship with Indonesia. This history of the relationship with Indonesia has included twenty-four years of occupation as well as many documented atrocities occurring in that time. However, the nature of the relationship since this time has changed enormously since going through phases of reconciliation, forgiveness and exchange.

Similarly, Timor-Leste has tried to pursue a policy of good relations with all its ASEAN neighbors. Just as it has worked to build relations with Indonesia, Timor-Leste has been pursuing a healthy and cooperative relationship with other ASEAN countries, creating channels of communication and exchange to deepen these ties. As a result of this, Timor’s current bid to become a full member of ASEAN is being welcomed by the majority of ASEAN nations. This network of co-operating countries also sets the stage for the creation of the structural requirements needed for the successful implementation of preventive diplomacy. Timor-Leste admission to ASEAN would reinforce these networks and help lead to a formalization of these networks.

Civil Society Perspective

From the viewpoint of initiating preventive diplomacy measures, it is clear that the strengthening and empowerment of Civil Society Organizations would be highly beneficial to nations attempting to engage in preventive diplomacy. Benefits can be seen in two separate ways. The first is through the engagement of civil society to enforce agreements. An example is the Batany Ceasefire Agreement in Mindanao, Philippines, where 900 volunteers worked to report any violations in the ceasefire agreement. Civil Society Organizations are also becoming increasingly involved in preventive diplomacy efforts through the organization of “Track II” meetings on the margins of formal diplomatic talks. In these ways, Civil Society Organizations can serve as the practitioners capable of turning inter-governmental policy efforts into reality.


From the discussions held at this year’s Asian Regional Forum, it is clear that preventive diplomacy is an important topic of discussion that must continue to be focused on. It is encouraging to see that ASEAN is taking steps to develop a preventive diplomacy among its member states. Fundasaun Mahein however, would like to see that these talks are followed up with concrete action, which ideally results in the creation of a formalized structure within ASEAN. Fundasaun Mahein also hopes that ASEAN recognizes the important contributions Timor-Leste has to make as a country that has experience applying preventive diplomacy in the real world. Furthermore, FM hopes that the Timor-Leste government continues to recognize the crucial role that Civil Society Organizations (CSO’s) play in the formation and implementation of national development policies, and that the government continues its commitment towards including CSO’s in future national policy and ARF discussions.

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