Climate Change Policies in ASEAN: Can the EU Help to Bring Civil Society into Play?

Climate Change Policies in ASEAN: Can the EU Help to Bring Civil Society into Play?

A critical and watchful civil society is of paramount importance for good governance because it helps to increase accountability. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) currently aspires to deepen integration by building an ASEAN Community. This article asks how the voice of civil society can be increased in this process, focusing on climate change policies. Can Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) also be included in Public Private Partnerships (PPP)? How can the EU, with its experience in civil society engagement, promote greater involvement of CSOs in climate change initiatives in ASEAN?

State of play

Over the last years, an increasing number of policy frameworks have underlined the importance of climate change on ASEAN’s agenda and in EU-ASEAN interregional cooperation. Under the Blueprint for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, which is one of the three Community pillars, the ASEAN Working Group on Climate Change (AWGCC) was established to oversee the implementation of the organization’s climate change policies, which were detailed by the ‘Action Plan on Joint Response to Climate Change’. Subsequently, the ‘Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action’ enhanced the ASEAN-EU partnership through the Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument (READI) by focusing on issues of mutual interest, such as supporting the ASEAN Climate Change Initiative.

ASEAN has also launched a series of initiatives to increase the resonance of its policies with civil society. This year, at the leader level, the ASEAN Summit adopted three documents, namely the ‘Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented, People-Centred ASEAN’, the ‘Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates’ and the ‘Declaration on Institutionalising the Resilience of ASEAN and its Communities and People to Disasters and Climate Change.’ At the CSO level, the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People Forum (ACSC/APF) is more focused on human rights issues than climate change.

The CSOs recognize the potential benefit of ASEAN for its member-states, particularly enhanced autonomy and bargaining power on the international platform. The competition among the regional (non-climate change based) CSO networks for recognition by ASEAN is already noticeable. The Climate Action Network Southeast Asia (CANSEA) attempts to influence ASEAN action and participate in the UNFCCC meetings, as well as those of CAN at the international level.


The ACSC/APF was established to build a people-oriented ASEAN. However, the interface between CSOs and the ASEAN leaders within the forum has been heavily criticized due to the condensed time and restricted agenda – not to mention that the CSO representatives were selected by their respective ASEAN member countries. By consequence, so-called GONGOs (government-organized nongovernmental organizations) dominate the scene.[1] The limited time bars CSOs from challenging the letters and statements used in final resolutions. In addition, the provision of physical and political space for ACSC/APF participants highly depends on the host government who is the current chair of the ASEAN. For this reason, the CSO accreditation on the ASEAN level is often viewed as entailing limitations, rather than an opportunity to increase access. Participation is perceived as a privilege rather than a right.

The potential of PPPs is also seen in a skeptical light. Some CSOs opine that they shift the focus of cooperation towards corporate profit and away from community rights and welfare. This gives the private sector opportunities to have a free ride on CSO’s advocacy works. The autonomy of CSOs is further weakened with the increased investment protection measures, of which the most notable is the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) through the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA).[2]

Ways forward

There is no single regional entity representing the CSOs from ASEAN member states. Hence, upscaling the national climate change CSOs to a regional network is necessary. In this context, the EU’s CSO umbrella organizations could share their experience of linking national CSOs in Europe. ASEAN-based and EU-based CSOs could further cooperate when the needs arise. To influence the blueprint drafting, CSO representatives should be allowed to sit within the ASEAN Summit as an observer. A follow-up mechanism should also be in place to monitor the actual inclusion of CSO requests. In ASEAN, climate issues are mostly national policies, so all ASEAN member countries should include at least two to four CSO representatives in their national delegations to UNFCCC COPs.

In the realm of PPPs, the CSO’s democratic internal structure must be transparent in order to be considered as a legitimate partner.[3] This could help them in acquiring a consultative status. ASEAN needs to recognise CSOs as important stakeholders just like businesses, and they should have an equal footing in the discussion and consultation processes. In many cases, CSOs can influence donor decisions by conducting research to identify critical areas in need of support. In this respect, CSOs introduce innovation, accountability, and responsiveness in PPPs.

The Union is currently contributing €57 Million to the Asian Investment Facility, which promotes a green economy through the leverage of additional investments and key infrastructure with a priority focus on climate change-relevant and ‘green’ investments.[4] The Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO) should work towards making the fund accessible to CSOs.

The EU and ASEAN should enhance diplomatic exchange to ensure civil society involvement in their cooperation. A major possible coordinating actor is the Delegation of the European Union to Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and ASEAN. The EU Ambassadors in ASEAN countries should have a say in which bidding organizations get EU project funding. In addition, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) from ASEAN countries should station representatives to the EU Commission.

The READI activities, the Third EU-ASEAN Roundtable on Climate Change and the EU support to the Regional Forum on Climate Change should serve as a platform to hold governments accountable for promises or commitments made to the ASEAN people during the ACSC/APF. As CSOs are not systematically consulted and are not prime drivers of the integration processes, areas covered by the on-going READI facility should include cross-cutting areas, e.g. Engagement with Civil Society and Regional Institutional Capacity Building in connecting CSOs in EU and ASEAN.

Last but not least, CSOs do not necessarily need a state-led framework to voice their agenda – they can create political spaces through ‘alternative regionalism from below’. In this spirit, CSOs in the EU and ASEAN could share resources and ideas to make themselves heard.[5]


[1]ASEAN Community 2015:Integration for Whom?, IBON International Policy Brief, April 2015, pg.5,

[2] ASEAN Community 2015: Integration for Whom?, IBON International Policy Brief, April 2015, pg. 10.

[3] GIGA FOCUS (2014), German Institute of Global and Area Studies Leibniz-Institut fur Globale und Regionale Studien, Issue 10, pg.1,

[4] Asian Investment Facility (AIF) – Action Document,

[5] See also the report ‘Southern voices on climate policy choices: civil society advocacy on climate change‘,