The SAARC story ! | By Khalid Saleem


The SAARC story !

THERE was a time when things were moving fastin this region of ours. SAARC was an
organisation that had the wherewithal to go places.

The fact that it did not quite make it calls for a good, hard look over the shoulder to gauge this Regional Organisation’s record of success, or, what is more in evidence, failure.

The writing on the wall that stares all SAARC states in the face is that this grouping has not only failed to live up to its early promise but has also let the region down in more ways than one!

SAARC came into being in an era yearning for ‘regional organisational politics’, or so one was led to believe.

Instances abound. We had the European Union that – Brexit notwithstanding – went far towards settlement of its regional issues. ASEAN has often been 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 not taken off the ground? Does the fault lie with us or the fact that ours happens to be an accident-prone region?

A cursory look over the shoulder may be in order. One recalls that years ago when India announced its donation for flood relief in Pakistan, it was done on a bilateral basis.

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

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

In this context, it must be added that controversy could have been avoided if the Indian offer had come under SAARC auspices but this was not the case.

Let it then be surmised that SAARC, as a regional grouping, has 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 too has been pathetic.

What can one say about an Organization, summit after summit of which is completely over-shadowed by the prospect of side-lines meeting between 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 the Organization or, indeed, to the host nation.

Looking at the past SAARC summits, should the members not have bent their energies towards solution of issues of vital concern to the region as a whole? While it is a fact that reference to bilateral issues is discouraged in the Charter, 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.

Some issues stand out as more pertinent than others. No member state of SAARC, for instance, should have the license to squeeze the water supply of another member.

Pakistan and Bangladesh have 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 SAARC intervene if it comes to that?

Despite pro forma 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 poor 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 and/or deviations.

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 Siachin 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 in the area.

The Maldives and Bangladesh face the looming threat posed by global warming.

Should SAARC not take cognizance of these potentially explosive issues and then follow up on its decisions?

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 recognized.

In fact, a majority of the member states of SAARC suffer and bleed from this affliction.

If it is recognized 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 member states.

A regional organization 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 onus of pulling the Organization out of the quagmire in which it finds itself also rests with them.

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

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