From an ambitious pilot scheme, João Ribeiro has built the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law’s Regional Centre for Asia and the Pacific into a respected institution, assisting nations in developing sound legal frameworks for business. With a new mandate until 2022, the centre’s head speaks to Asia Business Law Journal about the successes and challenges of running UNCITRAL’s only regional centre

When you think about the law and business, what do you see as the two biggest issues facing the region in the next decade? Why?

RIBEIRO: There are barriers on access to justice and persistently disabling legislation for the digitalization of the economy as a result of frail legal local capacity and lack of modern frameworks. This results mainly from legislative disparities in legal frameworks conducive to unbearable transactional costs for SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] to join the share of benefits resultant from increased cross-border trade.

Legal models circulate in a manner that is not always coherent with the desire to build regional integration. Often, it is possible to identify stronger harmonization of business laws of some jurisdictions in the region with other non-regional jurisdictions (for instance, within the Commonwealth), than intra-regionally.

Some examples: the Malaysian sale of goods law is closer to the one of the Bahamas than to the one in Indonesia. The Singaporean law on arbitration is closer to the one of Peru than to the one of Lao PDR. Japanese contract law is closer to the one in Germany than to the one of Myanmar.

As we can see, this is hardly in line with the regional political discourse of economic and legal integration. We believe that if states in the region, in the next decade, choose, in a co-ordinated fashion, to actively pursue modern, harmonized and sound legislative frameworks on international sale of goods, on electronic commerce, international commercial arbitration and secured transactions, the region will be at the forefront of modern private trade law and will expand its intra-trade statistics and become more resilient to financial crises and commodities prices fluctuations.

How positive are you about the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community)? Does ASEAN have the wherewithal, i.e., the resources and the so-called institutional glue, to make it work? How critical is the success of the AEC to ASEAN’s future?

RIBEIRO: This is a matter in which the UN does not have, and should not have, a position. But of course we are following closely ASEAN’s implementation of the AEC. I would like to recall [UN] secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s remarks at the 6th annual ASEAN-UN summit, stating that the UN is striving to renew its commitments to development with regional organizations like the ASEAN in ushering in a new era of the new sustainable development agenda.

We are happy with what we have achieved, while there is a long, long and challenging road ahead
“We are happy with what we have achieved, while there is a long, long and challenging road ahead”

Realizing the goals of the AEC will be essential in financing that agenda. In line with the goals that were outlined during the ASEAN-UN summit, specifically those related to economic co-operation in trade facilitation, UNCITRAL may play an important role in promoting good governance and rule of law through: rules-based regional architecture; promoting the adoption of regulatory regimes in engagement with the private sector, including the settlement of disputes; and encouraging a central role for ASEAN in the economic integration in the greater East Asian region.

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