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Can SAARC hold the Regional Dream?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 07, 2008

    SAARC has in recent years attracted wide international attention and generated much interest among countries that now hold Observer status. The 15th Summit held in Colombo on August 2 – 3, 2008 renewed its pledge to take SAARC from a declaratory to the implementation stage. Four agreements were signed at the Summit on mutual assistance to address criminal activities, trade, combating terrorism and climate change. The theme of the 41-point Colombo Declaration announced at the end of the Summit was “Partnership for Growth for Our People.”

    Though the Summit emphasised a people-centric approach to the region’s problems, SAARC has been one organisation that has been most state centric in its functioning and its progress has been held hostage by individual states. Even a regional approach to address common problems has had limited appeal among SAARC members. SAARC’s emphasis on a consensual approach to regional issues has been one of its major undoing, with individual countries holding regional co-operation hostage to bilateral issues and adopting bilateralism to overcome sluggish regional co-operation. Even the regional concern on terrorism remained unaddressed till 9/11, when SAARC members signed the Additional Protocol on SAARC Convention on Terrorism in 2005, nearly two decades after the Convention on terrorism was signed. The Additional Protocol still remains ambiguous in its definition and intent, thereby defeating the very purpose for which it was signed.

    Realising that collective initiatives have not been robust enough given the priorities of individual countries, the Colombo Declaration urges each member state to become the lead country for a regional or sub-regional project. The earlier experience with the South Asia Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) under sub-regional cooperation, initiated by the government of Nepal, was not encouraging. Not only did Pakistan and Sri Lanka oppose sub-regional cooperation under Article 7 of the SAARC charter, but the issue got embroiled in the domestic politics of Nepal and Bangladesh where opposition parties accused their ruling counterparts of weakening SAARC. It is true that South Asian countries have come a long way since 1997 when sub-regional cooperation was first mooted. It is also equally true that mutual suspicion continues to be a defining parameter in regional co-operation. Otherwise there is no rationale to explain the sluggish progress of SAARC when all countries realise that regional co-operation is the only way out be it on the issue of trade, energy or co-operation to combat terrorism. So far, SAARC has failed to touch the lives of the people in South Asia in general.

    The Summit declaration does not give much hope if after 23 years of existence leaders continue to emphasise that “the process of regional cooperation must be truly people-centred, so that SAARC continues to strengthen in keeping with expectations as a robust partnership for growth for the peoples of South Asia.” There would not have been a need to emphasise a people centric approach had people been placed at the core of SAARC. If people centricism is the main goal, then where do they exactly stand in the process? Why is that people of the region do not exhibit euphoria over the summit or show signs of despair when Summits are cancelled? This is because the SAARC process is yet to touch their life. Both peoples and governments realise that a national approach to their problems are far more important. Unfortunately, the cancellation of regional summit meetings due to bilateral problems has tempered the hope for greater dividends in the socio-economic sphere. SAFTA is an example in this regard, which, after adoption by member countries has remained unimplemented since Pakistan has refused to extend the same trade advantages to India as it is supposed to do to the other South Asian countries.

    The Colombo Summit renewed its commitment to implement SAFTA in letter and spirit by making efforts to remove trade barriers and giving extra concessions to least developed countries (LDCs) like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives. Non-implementation of SAFTA has been due to the long negative list each country has. The Colombo Declaration calls for implementation of the decision taken by the SAARC ministerial council to revise the sensitive lists giving special consideration to the LDCs. The major stumbling bloc has been non-tariff barriers which have affected trade between the countries of South Asia. Other issues that figured in the Summit declaration were food security, energy issues, terrorism and regional connectivity.

    Regional connectivity has been emphasised as one of the important aspects to ensure people-to-people contact. The challenge is whether the pledge for connectivity would move from the declaratory to the implementation phase. In the recent Foreign Secretary-level meeting between Bangladesh and India, Bangladesh has refused to extend transit rights to India. Though there are many in Bangladesh who argue that a regional initiative would be more fruitful in this context, but the case of the Asian Highway, a multilateral project, which Bangladesh refused to sign as since it would automatically extend transit facility to India, does not generate much hope for a regional approach.

    SAARC has provided a forum for South Asian leaders to meet and that in itself should be important if regional co-operation needs to be effective. Some Summit meetings have helped countries to defuse bilateral tensions, thereby contributing to regional peace. This is particularly true in the case of India and Pakistan. For the effect of a regional initiative to be felt by the common man, SAARC programmes need to move beyond Summit announcements. For the time being, however, bilateralism is likely to triumph over a regional approach.