SAARC Leaders admits failure of the regional institution

SAARC Leaders admits failure of the regional institution

The heads of state/government of member-states- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan ,India, Maldives. Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka- attended the two-day (28-29 April) SAARC Summit in Bhutan.

It ended with a 36 point “Thimphu Silver Jubilee Declaration” which contains statement of aspirations, intentions and a few decisions. The Declaration appears to be a largely pious statements on the need to cooperate among the member-states on energy, water management, agriculture, intra-trade facilitation, intra-regional connectivity through rail and road and poverty reduction.

President Nasheed of the Maldives spoke his heart out and for the first time in 25 years, a member- state took India and Pakistan head on, blaming them on making SAARC virtually non functional.

“I hope that neighbours can find ways to compartmentalize pending differences, while finding areas on which they can move forward.” And he did not stop at that: “I am specifically referring to differences between India and Pakistan,” the President added.

However, the Press Trust of India called it is “unusual” for the Maldives to talk bilateral ties in the multilateral forum of SAARC.

Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmy Y Thinley could not put it more bluntly than that when he told the summit: “Some 200 meetings take place every year amongst SAARC countries but these meetings are not matched by results.”

India’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh echoed a similar view, that after two decades the sub-continent remains more divergent and socio-economic integration is still far way. “Regional integration is half empty. Despite the telecommunication connectivity, intra trade and investments flow is far below, compared to the East and Southeast Asia,” he noted.

SAARC, he added, had put in place creative institutions but they are not empowered enough to address the needs of South Asia.

In his speech, Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani has called for harmony and stability in South Asia to realize socio-economic development and ensure the well-being of the people in the region. “For many years, real progress remained stalled due in part to hesitancy borne from historical legacies, differences and disputes”.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has said the most challenging threats facing the South Asia are terrorism, extremism, narcotics and organized crime and SAARC could be a platform to combat these threats together.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her speech reminded the South Asian leaders of their responsibility towards peoples of the region. “Is it not fair that we, as their entrusted leaders, consider seriously their dilemma, determinedly rise above all our differences, and plunge with fixated resolve to change their life?” she said:

She added: “I firmly believe we can, and do so we will, with some bold decisions here. I am convinced that this maiden Summit of the Kingdom of Bhutan under its Chair, would lead us across the threshold to a new era of peace and prosperity of our peoples.”

At the Thimphu Summit, all leaders must have been aware that half of the world’s poor live in the region, although it constitutes only 3% of the surface area of the world. The insulting poverty level in the region is not acceptable in the 21st century.

Some of the decisions at the Summit deserve mention below:

• Silver Jubilee Year should be commemorated by making SAARC truly action-oriented by implementing declarations and decisions and operating instruments to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the people of the region.
• To form a “South Asia Forum” for generating debate and exchange of ideas on South Asia and its future. The forum will consist of eminent personalities from diverse backgrounds and is expected to function on a public-private partnership basis.
• To convene a “Conclave of SAARC Parliamentarians” in line with SAARC Charter
• Initiating a process to formulate a common SAARC policy position for the Mexico UN Conference on Climate Change in December this year.
• An Action Plan on energy conservation would be prepared by SAARC Energy Centre in Islamabad
• Welcomed Bhutan’s offer to a SAARC workshop on Gross National Happiness (GNH) in 2010- focusing people-centric development in the region
• Expressed their firm resolve to root our terrorism and reiterated their commitment to address illegal trafficking in drugs, firearms and persons.

It is good to note that the Declaration has incorporated Bangladesh’s proposal for a “Charter of Democracy” for regional cooperation and aimed at strengthening good governance.

On poverty alleviation, the leaders called for mainstreaming the SAARC Development Goals and completion of the mid-term review of the goals as scheduled. On SAARC Development Fund, the leaders welcomed the operations of the permanent secretariat of SDF underway including the appointment of its Chief Executive Officer.

On agriculture sector, the leaders called for early consideration of the concept of a regional seed bank, regional testing and certification of seeds and framework for transfer of plant genetic material and seeds.

On interconnectivity, acceleration of intra-regional trade, water management, cooperation in energy, the leaders recognised their need but no concrete decisions appeared to have been taken.

It seems so long the Kashmir dispute remains unresolved, the mistrust between India and Pakistan is likely to slow down regional collaborative projects under SAARC.

Some analysts say that despite territorial dispute between India and China, they boosted economic ties between them ( bilateral trade will stand to $30 billion per year within a period of few years). If they can do it, why can’t India and Pakistan follow similar path for the benefit of people of the region?

We hope “no-nonsense” speeches of some of the leaders at the Thimphu summit will lead India and Pakistan to patch up their differences and separate political issues from economic and social issues and agree on cooperative efforts within the SAARC.

What will make the Thimphu Summit different from other Summits is the unity of purpose demonstrated by all member-states in taking concerted projects to make the regional institution dynamic and action-oriented.

The SAARC, despite its difficulties, has come to stay and because of its geo-strategic importance, the US, China, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, Australia, Myanmar and the European Union, have observer status.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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