The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 8, 1985 with the sacrosanct goal of bringing about peace and prosperity in the South Asian region. SAARC aims at promoting the welfare of people in the South Asian region, improving their quality of life, uplifting their standard of living and accelerating economic, social and cultural development. SAARC also intends to offer opportunities to the people to live in dignity and help realise their full potential, thus promoting and reinvigorating collective self-reliance. SAARC has a number of specialised bodies and regional centres. The SAARC Secretariat is in Kathmandu.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since 1985. However, SAARC has failed to fully achieve its cherished goals set at its various summits. Economic development and regional integration are the other goals of SAARC. The launching of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in 2006 is a milestone in the history of SAARC but its remaining inactive is a setback for the trade sector of the regional organisation.
Likewise, SAARC’s determination to fight terrorism, a global threat to mankind, is beyond praise. During the 12th and 13th summits, the member states of SAARC accentuated the need for collectively fighting terrorism. It need not be reiterated that terrorism is still raising its ugly head in various forms and manifestations across the world. In fact, terrorism has assumed global proportions. According to the SAARC charter, bilateral matters should not be discussed in SAARC forums. Moreover, there is no room for interference of one member state in the internal affairs of another member state. But such provisions do not seem to have been fully abided by. The South Asian region is beset by conflicts of one form or the other, the Indo-Pakistan conflict being the most prominent.
SAARC took a nasty turn in 2016 when the 19th summit was about to take place in Islamabad of Pakistan. India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan decided to boycott the summit over a terrorist attack on an army camp in Uri, which lies in the disputed region of Kashmir. Sri Lanka and the Maldives refrained from taking any position on attending the summit. India accused Pakistan of orchestrating the attack, which the latter flatly denied. It has been seven years since the summit was stalled. The postponement of the summit was in violation of the joint commitment made at the 14th summit to hold SAARC summits every two years or earlier.
Currently, Nepal is the chair of SAARC. The nation is committed to doing its best to revive SAARC and make it more effective and vibrant. Sporadic efforts have also been made to hold the summit but to no avail. It seems unless India gives the green light to hold the summit, it will not be held, which indicates that the revival of SAARC seems to be a far cry and that it hinges on India. India does not seem to be willing to let the stalled summit take place given that it has given short shrift to SAARC and, instead, focused on the BBIN, a sub-regional initiative involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. India’s chief objective, when it comes to regional groupings, is to exclude Pakistan at any cost.
On the other hand, there may arise problems with appointing a replacement for the SAARC Secretary General. Esala Ruwan Weerakoon of Sri Lanka, is the current SAARC Secretary General. His term expires in March 2023. It is Afghanistan’s turn to recommend the next Secretary General. Before Weerakoon retires, an understanding on the appointment of his successor has to be confirmed. But since seizing power again in Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban government has been in power. The Taliban takeover has complicated the SAARC process. The Taliban government has been recognised by only one of the SAARC member states: Pakistan.
The SAARC charter stipulates that all member states should attend summits. Decisions have to be taken unanimously. And any member state can apply its veto to stop any move. Such provisions also seem to have complicated the SAARC process. Peace and security are the most important factor for any grouping to forge ahead like clockwork. Peace and security can play a pivotal role in securing the collective welfare of people. However, SAARC has been held hostage to rivalry between India and Pakistan, which is unfortunate. Negotiations are an effective tool for solving any problem or deadlock. As chair, Nepal should take the initiative to hold negotiations among the member states, even if informally, to set the SAARC process in motion.
The South Asian region is home to 21 per cent of the world population despite occupying just 3 per cent of the land area. However, its contribution to the world economy stands at 5.21 per cent only as per the 2021 estimate. This goes on to show that there is an acute need for reviving and revitalising SAARC. For this, the SAARC charter needs to be adhered to by all the member states. Bilateral matters should not be allowed to interfere in the SAARC process. Most of the people in the SAARC region are living a miserable life. It is the duty of the governments concerned to look after the welfare of their people. The synergic efforts of SAARC will definitely enable the member states to improve the living conditions of their respective people. Collective welfare and prosperity are what SAARC is after. So it has been overdue to arouse SAARC from the coma it has been in for so many years and revive the regional grouping.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)