Friday, May 7, 2010

SAARC: Still limping after a quarter century

Pubished in The Daily Star, May 8th 2010

THE 16th SAARC Summit in Bhutan from April 26-28 marked the Silver Jubilee of the organization that was first launched in Dhaka in 1985 to become the biggest regional organization in the world. It brought together at present estimate 1.6 billion impoverished people with the promise of a better future through regional cooperation.

Bhutan had given up three previous offers to hold the Summit due to inadequate infrastructure. If any region in the world is in urgent need of regional cooperation to accelerate development, then SAARC is the ideal choice by a long margin. Yet, 25 years down the road, SAARC summits are barely more than annual gatherings of the Heads of State/Government of the region. Even the annual gathering as required under the SAARC Charter was irregular. Eight summits were not held because of reasons that do not reflect well upon the organization and its future.

The Bhutan Summit was preceded by a number of positive developments for regional cooperation. The Sri Lankan Civil War has ended; in Bangladesh, emergency rule became history and an elected government came to power with a massive majority. In India, the Congress has been re-elected with a comfortable majority; In Nepal, the armed conflict with Maoists and monarchy have also become history although the country is facing teething problems in establishing democracy. Overall a fair wind is blowing in South Asia for regional cooperation.

These positive developments could have yielded rich dividends in cooperation in any other region but not in South Asia. The South Asian leaders deliberated in Thimphu on a very limited agenda for regional cooperation, no better no worse than what they had done in the past 15 Summits. The Summiteers agreed that after 25 years, they have little to show in terms of achievements. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underscored this disappointment with a cliché, suggesting that the SAARC glass is half empty and challenged the members to cooperate in a manner to enable free movement of people, goods, services and ideas.

In the end, the South Asian leaders adopted the 36 points “Thimphu Silver Jubilee Declaration” that is high on intent but without clear and well defined mechanism for delivery. The Summit adopted the “Convention for Cooperation on Environment” to develop an inter-governmental mechanism for dealing with issues of global warming and initiatives related to water management and conservation of nature at national, sub-regional and regional levels.

To enhance regional trade and economic integration, the Summit also adopted an agreement on “Trade in Services.” These two agreements aside, the Summit in its Declaration endorsed a number of ideas from member nations intended to enhance regional cooperation. These included emphasis upon the need to develop a “Vision Statement” and a “South Asian Forum” that would bring together eminent persons to generate debate to strengthen SAARC.

The Summit also endorsed steps to form a “Conclave of South Asian parliamentarians” in line with the Charter. It also endorsed Bangladesh's “Charter of Democracy”; Bhutan's “Gross National Happiness” together with similar ideas from other member states for strengthening SAARC. The Summiteers underscored clearly their intention to make all future SAARC decisions action oriented.

The agreements reached in Thimphu and intentions expressed are important but they would bring the SAARC nations no closer in regional cooperation than they had been before the Summit.

SAARC's potentials for regional cooperation still remains hostage to the legacy handed down by the British colonizers reflected in the enmity between India and Pakistan, two nations whose friendship is indispensable to create the trust necessary for SAARC to succeed.

The other factor that has handicapped SAARC is India's size and dominance. From the very beginning, India has been suspicious of SAARC. It viewed SAARC as a forum for its neighbours to deal with it collectively for solving their bilateral and regional problems. Upon India's insistence, the SAARC charter prohibited discussion on bilateral and conscientious issues in the SAARC forum. Importantly, this embedded in the so-called SAARC spirit a lack of trust, obstructing its natural growth. Despite optimism and conviction of the leaders in the Thimphu Summit, the trust deficiency did not fail to surface as Pakistan declined to sign the agreement on response to natural disasters because it could land foreign troops on the soil of member states.

The Thimphu Summit, as expected, emphasized upon vague and lofty ideals such as Bangladesh's “Charter of Democracy” and Bhutan's “Gross National Happiness” without any clear road map for enhancing socio-economic development of the region. The decisions will merely give the organization enough oxygen to breathe till the next Summit. Until Pakistan and India have normal relations, SAARC's development will be fundamentally impeded by the lack of trust between the two.

When India was apprehensive about SAARC, it had not yet emerged as the power it is today. This emergence should have encouraged India to play a bigger and positive role in integrating SAARC. Unfortunately, this has not happened. With positive wind blowing in India's bilateral relations with the other South Asian neighbours except Pakistan, it is time that India made genuine overtures towards its neighbours who have shown their friendly hands. India showed that intent in the speech of its Prime Minister but very little of it has been reflected in the Declaration. While Pakistan must accept its fair share of blame for keeping SAARC from achieving its potentials, the bigger responsibility in this context is India's.

For the sake of the SAARC spirit and for India's emerging role as a major world power, it is time for it to renounce its insistence on strict bilateralism and to revive the Gujral Doctrine, a concept under which the former Indian Prime Minister wanted to give smaller neighbours like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan their interests with India without reciprocity.

As a thought, why could India not have helped adopt a decision in the Thimphu Summit on a visa free regime among SAARC member countries by agreeing to open its doors to its neighbours keeping in mind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's strong advocacy for free movement of people, goods, services and ideas within SAARC? On a reality check, there is no chance of such a thing happening in SAARC in the foreseeable future because instead of easing free movement of people, goods, services and ideas, India is more interested in building barbed wires on its borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

With such ground reality, SAARC can only limp towards its Golden Jubilee as it has up to its Silver Jubilee. Meanwhile, the neighbours of India, with exception of Pakistan, could justifiably say what the 19th century Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz had said of Mexican-US relations in the context of their present predicament in SAARC: poor neighbours of India; so far from God, yet so near to India!

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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