Whatever happened to promise of SAARC ? | By Khalid Saleem

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Whatever happened to promise of SAARC ?


THE one fundamental precept relating to international groupings is that top priority is invariably accorded to strengthening of the moorings and establishing of the infrastructure. It is only after these fundamentals have been suitably taken care of that attention is diverted towards what may be termed as embellishments and trimmings.

The question of expansion beyond the strict regional regime, if at all considered necessary, is relegated to the lowest priority. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has surprisingly turned out to be the singular exception.

Ever since its inception, SAARC has been engaged more in superficial ostentation rather than tackling the basic impediments that stand in the way of regional integration of any sort.

For instance, so many ancillary bodies have sprouted under its benign shade that it is now difficult to discern the original organism, such as it is. One reason for this sad mix-up of priorities has probably been the general atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that has always characterized the relations between the biggest member state and the smaller states of the region.

When a regional Organization of this genre is set up, the first evolutionary steps are invariably based on the concept of notional equality of the member states. Bilateral frictions and hang-ups are generally made subservient to the overall interests of the Organization as a whole.

Advantage is then taken of the ambiance created by the commonality of interests to minimize the political differences among member states, if not settle them once for all. The experience of ASEAN is a case in point, where Indonesia – by far the biggest member state – took a conscious policy decision to maintain a low profile so as not to give the small states a feeling of having to deal with the ‘big brother’.

For reasons best known to itself, the Indian establishment missed no opportunity to throw its weight around to browbeat smaller neighbours. Because of (unfounded?) fears that the small state members would gang up against it, India has made no secret of its intention to deal with each neighbour individually on a bilateral basis and on its own terms.

The two landlocked member states – Nepal and Bhutan – have been particularly singled out for some heavy-handed treatment. Sri Lanka has had to contend with an insurgency that can hardly be called entirely indigenous. Maldives barely manages to keep its head above the water again thanks to Indian overtones. Despite its untenable pretensions, Pakistan too has been on the receiving end.

On the economic front the Organization has made little or no headway. Despite the hullabaloo about the importance of SAFTA, India has made little attempt to eliminate the hidden non-tariff barriers in its bilateral trade with member states. Even today, with all the talk about free trade and CBMs, India has made little effort to ensure a level playing field in its economic and commercial relations with its SAARC partners.

It was somewhat intriguing to find that the member states should have opted for an expansion of the Association’s membership, in a decision that amounted to virtually redefining the South Asian region. How the inclusion of Afghanistan as a full member affects the already somewhat precarious balance of forces within SAARC is fast becoming evident to the discerning observer.

It is a sad state of affairs that the Summit Conferences of SAARC have been characterized more with issues other than those of direct concern to the Association. In several of the past summit meetings, for instance, it was the bilateral meetings on the sidelines that cadged the headlines. In fact, during one the mere instance of a handshake overshadowed all the deliberations of the meeting. In the past meeting, surprisingly it was the agreement on expansion of membership that was given out as the ‘success’ story of the Summit.

The past SAARC meetings should have been occasions for the leaders of the member states to bend their energies to settle issues of vital concern to the region as a whole. Nothing of this sort has happened. It is true that the Charter discourages references to ‘bilateral issues’. But, then, there are several issues that are no longer of purely bilateral concern and which are crying out for solutions. Among them are issues relating to:

– Natural Disasters;

– Apportionment of Water Resources;

– Sharing of Energy Resources;

– Preservation of Environment;

– Poverty Alleviation;

– Education for All; and

– Extremism and Terrorism

Despite the imminent need to tackle these issues, nothing tangible appears to have been achieved. If anything, there are more schisms than convergences. If one looks back at the record of the fruits of the past SAARC summits, one finds precious little that one can latch on to. The only noteworthy element that stands out is the extremely positive and constructive contribution of the smaller member states. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan have more than pulled their weight in the Association’s somewhat erratic march through the minefield of South Asian politics. These states have perforce to manoeuvre within very restrictive parameters and yet they have given ample evidence of their commitment to the principles and ideals of SAARC. The same cannot be said about the larger (and more influential) member states.

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

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