A regional approach to issues! | BY Khalid Saleem


A regional approach to issues!

THIS is the era of ‘regional organizational’ politics, or so one is led to believe. Instances abound. We have the European Union that has gone far towards settlement of its regional issues.

ASEAN is often cited as a success story. Why then is this approach not successful in our part of the world?

Why, it may be asked and with reason, have the organizations that Pakistan belongs to be not taken off the ground?

Does the fault lie with us or the fact that this happens to be an accident-prone region? Pakistan is a member of SAARC, ECO and on a larger plane of the OIC.

It would be interesting to note the reaction of these organizations to the flood-related crisis in Pakistan.

The OIC reaction was nothing better than a belated – and somewhat lame – statement that went largely unheeded.

SAARC and ECO did not go even that far! In the present piece, one would devote attention to only SAARC. When India announced its donation for flood relief, it was done on a bilateral basis.

Since this was given out as humanitarian gesture, it should have been accepted immediately at face value.

The fact that a response was delayed unnecessarily allowed interested parties to play politics with the issue.

It would have been preferable if this had been avoided. In this context, it must be added that all unsavoury controversy could have been avoided if the Indian offer had come under SAARC auspices but this was not to be, considering that this organization has tied itself up into knots for reasons that are not difficult to fathom.

SAARC as a regional grouping appears to have failed to live up to its promise. Not only has it been a singular failure in efforts to add an economic dimension of note to regional ties, its record in regional planning and problem-solving has been pathetic.

What can one say about an Organization, summit after summit of which is completely over-shadowed by the prospect of sidelines meeting between two of its member states?

Meetings on the side-lines of international conferences are a part of the multilateral diplomacy culture, but to move the limelight away from the summit itself to a now-on-now-off meeting on the sidelines is hardly fair either to the spirit of SAARC or, indeed, to the host nation.

Looking at the last SAARC summit, should the members not have bent their energies to issues of vital concern to the region as a whole?

It is true that references to bilateral issues are discouraged. But, then, there are several issues that are no longer of purely bilateral concern.

The issues of 1) natural disasters; (2) apportionment of waters; 3) sharing of energy resources; 4) preservation of environment; 5) education for all; 6) poverty alleviation; as also extremism and terrorism are, or at least should be, of common concern.

The need to pool resources to face natural calamities in one or more member states hardly needs to be over-emphasized.

No member of SAARC should have the license to squeeze the water supply of another member.

Pakistan has had water issues with India for quite some time. Should SAARC have allowed such a vital matter to be swept under the proverbial rug on the excuse that it is a ‘bilateral issue’?

Now that Afghanistan has been admitted as a member, it would need to be ensured that flows of waters of the Kabul River into Pakistan are not tampered with.

But will it and will SAARC intervene if it comes to that? Despite agreements, commerce and trade among member states within the SAARC region is hardly anything to write home about.

A comparison with other regional groupings, such as ASEAN, shows up SAARC in very bad light indeed.

The transit trade agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan could very well have been negotiated within the framework of SAARC.

In order to bring the economic and commercial ties on an even keel, SAARC should take it upon itself to regularly set targets and then to monitor progress.

Many countries of the SAARC region are energy deficient. A cogent and well thought out energy sharing plan could go a long way in ironing out the kinks.

For this to happen, a healthy environment of self and mutual help is imperative. This is conspicuously lacking. Energy sharing could well provide the cement to bind member states together.

Conservation of the environment is also a matter of common concern. To take just two examples: The Siachen stand-off between Pakistan and India threatens an ecological disaster of gigantic proportions due to the imminent danger of melting of the glacier due to the activities of armed forces of the two sides in the area.

The Maldives faces the looming threat of submersion posed by global warming. Should SAARC not take cognizance of these potentially explosive issues and then follow up on its decisions?

‘Education for all’ and ‘poverty alleviation’ are two issues on which a lot of hot air is expended in SAARC meetings and forums, but regretfully all to no avail.

It is high time that the powers that be in member states start taking themselves seriously on these and allied issues.

Last, but by no means the least, is the matter of eradication of extremism and terrorism from the region.

If the member States deliberate on it with the seriousness it deserves, they will find this malaise to be more wide-spread than is generally recognised. In fact, a majority of the member states of SAARC suffer and bleed from this affliction.

If it is recognised and tackled betimes as an issue of common concern, it may be more amenable to a solution to the satisfaction of all.

All in all, SAARC is being held hostage to the tension created due to the non-settlement of the contentious issues between its two largest member states.

A regional organisation cannot be divorced from the fallout due to bilateral stresses and strains between members.

As the two largest members, India and Pakistan bear a heavy responsibility for the stupor that SAARC finds itself in at this period in time.

— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.


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