On December 8, 1985, the leaders of South Asian seven nations, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka came together and proclaimed the formation of a regional cooperation mechanism-- the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). South Asia was a late comer to the fold of regional cooperation and followed the routes of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and European Union (EU). Unlike ASEAN that grew out of “a shared threat perception” from communists, no such common commitment is there in SAARC. However, it was a bold move that even in the midst of mutual fears, distrusts, disharmony, and suspicions, SAARC emerged “to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems,” and “to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improve their quality of life.” Small countries feared that SAARC could be used by India to dominate whereas India suspected it as a forum for possible gang up by small nations against it.
In 35 years of its existence, SAARC held 18 summit meetings in different capitals, and identified several areas for cooperation including education, culture, sports, health, child welfare and women in development among others, and also created several exchange programmes like audiovisual, chairs, fellowships and scholarships and visa exemption scheme and youth volunteers and the South Asian University to promote people-to-people contacts. Leaders at the 18th SAARC summit directed for collaboration and engagement among the public authorities and private stakeholders for greater contacts among the people of the region. Despite a dense network of institutional arrangements built over the years, SAARC has not matured as an economic and political entity.
SAARC has been lying dormant, though the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu is functioning, technical and official meetings are on. Virtual ministerial meetings on finance, health and agriculture have underlined the importance of mutual cooperation and support among the member states. A routine SAARC foreign ministers’ meeting to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York every year is scheduled virtually on September 24. Nepal’s Foreign Minister says the meeting will “focus on seeking a common understanding to convene the stalled 19th SAARC summit and reaffirm, reiterate, and commitment towards the SAARC process.”
At a time when SAARC needs to move towards a ‘closer union of peoples,’ and displays more unity, solidarity and cooperation to address the challenges of public health in times of all challenging COVID-19 pandemic, it is unfortunate that fear and paranoia grip the region so pervasively and so hard. As SAARC is more democratic despite challenges of its own, than when it was formed, it had the opportunity to project South Asian identity based on democratic rights and institutions, human rights, freedom, and independence. SAARC has given no attention to it.
South Asia is “one of the least integrated regions” in the world, and least gender sensitive and most militarised. It is also one of the most conflict prone regions given the enormity of challenges including outstanding territorial disputes, growing number of transnational crimes, religious fundamentalism, and natural disasters. If not addressed in time, they become conflicts in a region that is poorly governed and appears along with the Sub-Saharan Africa region with widespread hunger and extreme poverty.
SAARC process is disrupted. Cross border terrorism remains the main culprit in straining and stalling the SAARC process. Terrorist attacks in Pathankot and Uri in India on the eve of the 19th summit led to its cancellation. India said terror and talks do not go together. Failures to work and act together are helping to breed extremists’ nests. In this time of unforeseen crisis caused by the pandemic, if leaders fail to open the way for SAARC, the countries in the region will be worse off.
SAARC may have institutional deficiencies, but it cannot be blamed for its shortcomings. SAARC would be as effective as its member states want it to be. Much more needs to be done to make SAARC see beyond the horizon in this time of rapidly shifting geopolitics and geo-economics. Attending the fifth SAARC summit, Nepali Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai had called upon the regional bloc to be more action-oriented and more economic minded instead of being a mere talk shop engrossed so much in formalities.
SAARC needs to come back to South Asian life. Indian Prime Minister’s invoking of SAARC to pull all countries together for a videoconference of SAARC leaders on March 15 to discuss strategies on how to fight the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates unique legitimacy that SAARC possesses throughout the region. PM Modi said, “We must all prepare together, we must all act together, and we must all succeed together.”
In his book “The India Way: Strategies for Uncertain World,” released earlier this month, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar writes “the re-energising of SAARC should be one of India’s key foreign policy priorities. South Asia is clearly among the least integrated regions of the world and being located at the center of the Indian Ocean, its dysfunctionality affects that larger space directly. The case for building connectivity and expanding trade is glaringly obvious. However, determined opposition to the core agenda from one country undermines much needed cooperation.”
The realities of geopolitics can never be obliterated. In this age of devastating weaponry, even bitter adversaries must learn to work together to peacefully co-exist. No one else will solve regions’ cross border problems. History is a witness that outsiders’ meddling in the region has only compounded them. The spread of extremism, and terrorism was inflamed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and counter reaction to the invasion by funneling American money and arms through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to anti-Soviet jihadists in Afghanistan. Had the resources spent gone to taming the extreme, religious fanatics, intolerant jihadists, in educating the value of pluralism, participation, accountability, and building resilience, ethnically mosaicked Afghanistan-Pakistan border would not have turned into fertile ground for transnational crimes.
Early on, third SAARC summit in Kathmandu had adopted the 1987 SAARC Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism and updated it with Additional Protocol in 2004 in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) and international Convention for Suppression of Financing of Terrorism. There is no alternative of coming together to make these instruments work. Given its potentials, working together honestly can make the SAARC a “dark horse,” in the realm of regional cooperation. “Re-energising of SAARC” coming as it does from the Foreign Minister of the largest and powerful member of the SAARC is encouraging. Member countries should seize the moment to open the doors of SAARC and “set an example to the world” in addressing the “complex cross-border challenges.”
(Bhattarai, former ambassador, currently a Faculty member at the Institute of Crisis Management Studies, TU.)