SAARC: Towards greater integration in South Asia
The first of a series of articles on the South Asian Association
for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which will be holding its 15th Summit
in Colombo next month.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an
economic and political organization of eight countries in Southern Asia.
In terms of population, its sphere of influence is the largest of any
regional organization: almost 1.5 billion people, the combined
population of its member states.
It was established on December 8, 1985 by India, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. In April 2007, at the
Association’s 14th summit, Afghanistan became its eighth member.
In the late 1970s, Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman proposed the
creation of a trade bloc consisting of South Asian countries.
The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was again mooted in
The Foreign Secretaries of the seven countries met for the first time
in Colombo in April 1981. The Committee of the Whole, which met in
Colombo in August 1981, identified five broad areas for regional
cooperation. New areas of cooperation were added in the following years.
A cyclist passes a billboard featuring images of South Asian
Leaders in Colombo. AFP
The Objectives of the Association as defined in the Charter are:
* to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve
their quality of life;
* to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural
development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity
to live in dignity and to realize their full potential;
* to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the
countries of South Asia;
* to contribute to mutual trust, understand and appreciation of one
* to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the
economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
* to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
* to strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums
on matters of common interest; and to cooperate with international and
regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.
The Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation was adopted by
the Foreign Ministers in 1983 in New Delhi.
During the meeting, the Ministers also launched the Integrated
Programme of Action (IPA) in nine agreed areas, namely, Agriculture,
Rural Development, Telecommunications, Meteorology, Health and
Population Activities, Transport, Postal Services, Science and
Technology, and Sports, Arts and Culture.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was
established when its Charter was formally adopted on 8 December 1985 by
the Heads of State or Government of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives,
Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Afghanistan was added to the regional grouping on November 13,
2005,and became a member on April 3, 2007.
With the addition of Afghanistan, the total number of Member States
were raised to eight.
In April 2006, the United States of America and South Korea made
formal requests to be granted observer status.
The European Union has also indicated interest in being given
observer status, and made a formal request for the same to the SAARC
Council of Ministers meeting in July 2006.
On August 2, 2006 the foreign ministers of the SAARC countries agreed
in principle to grant observer status to the US, South Korea and the
European Union. On 4 March 2007, Iran requested observer status.
Preamble to SAARC Charter
The preamble to the SAARC Charter spells out the intention of forming
this South Asian alliance as We, the Heads of State or Government of
BANGLADESH, BHUTAN, INDIA, MALDIVES, NEPAL, PAKISTAN and SRI LANKA;
‘Desirous of promoting peace, stability, amity and progress in the
region through strict adherence to the principles of the UNITED NATIONS
CHARTER and NON-ALIGNMENT, particularly respect for the principles of
sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence,
non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other
States and peaceful settlement of all disputes.
‘Conscious that in an increasingly interdependent world, the
objectives of peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity are
best achieved in the SOUTH ASIAN region by fostering mutual
understanding, good neighbourly relations and meaningful cooperation
among the Member States which are bound by ties of history and culture.
‘Aware of the common problems, interests and aspirations of the
peoples of SOUTH ASIA and the need for joint action and enhanced
cooperation within their respective political and economic systems and
Convinced that regional cooperation among the countries of SOUTH ASIA
is mutually beneficial, desirable and necessary for promoting the
welfare and improving the quality of life of the peoples of the region;
Convinced further that economic, social and technical cooperation
among the countries of SOUTH ASIA would contribute significantly to
national and collective self-reliance;
Recognising that increased cooperation, contacts and exchanges among
the countries of the region will contribute to the promotion of
friendship and understanding among their peoples;
Do hereby agree to establish an organisation to be known as SOUTH
ASIAN ASSOCIATION FOR REGIONAL COOPERATION.
The highest authority of the Association rests with the Heads of
State or Government.
The SAARC Charter provides that the Heads of State or Government
shall meet once a year or more often as and when considered necessary by
the Member States. The country which hosts the summit holds the Chair of
The Association also convenes meetings at Ministerial level on
SAARC bodies Council of Ministers
Comprising the Foreign Ministers of Member States, the Council of
Ministers is responsible for formulating policies, reviewing progress,
deciding on new areas of cooperation, establishing additional mechanisms
as deemed necessary, and deciding on other matters of general interest
to the Association.
The Council meets normally twice a year and may also meet in
extraordinary sessions by agreement of Member States.
The Standing Committee comprising the Foreign Secretaries of Member
States is entrusted with the task of overall monitoring and coordination
of programs, approving of projects and programs, and modalities of
financing, determining inter-sectoral priorities, mobilizing regional
and external resources, and identifying new areas of cooperation.
Usually this Committee meets twice a year preceding the Council of
Ministers and submits its reports to the Council of Ministers.
It may also meet in special session as and when necessary by
agreement among Member States.
The Standing Committee is authorized to set up Action Committees
comprising Member States concerned with implementation of projects
involving more than two but less than seven Member States. (Article VII
of the SAARC Charter).
The Programming Committee (which is not a SAARC Charter body)
comprises senior officials of member States. It assists the Standing
Committee in scrutinizing the Secretariat Budget, considers the reports
of the Technical Committees, SAARC Audio Visual Exchange (SAVE)
Committee, and Regional Centres finalizing, and the Calendar of
The SAARC Technical Committees are responsible for determination of
the potential and the scope of regional cooperation in agreed areas,
formulation of programmes and preparation of projects, determination of
financial implications of sectoral programmes, formulation of
recommendations regarding apportionment of costs, implementation and
coordination of sectoral programmes, and monitoring of progress in
In addition to the Technical Committees, various Working Groups are
established to consider specific issues and make recommendations to the
appropriate SAARC bodies. Currently five Working Groups are established
in the areas of Telecommunications and ICT, Biotechnology, Intellectual
Property Rights and Tourism.
The SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu on 16 January 1987
and was inaugurated by His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev of
Nepal. It is headed by a Secretary General appointed by the Council of
Ministers from Member Countries in alphabetical order for a three-year
He is assisted by the Professional and the General Services Staff,
and also an appropriate number of functional units called Divisions
assigned to Directors on deputation from Member States.
The Secretariat coordinates and monitors implementation of
activities, prepares for and services meetings, and serves as a channel
of communication between the Association and its Member States as well
as other regional organizations.
The Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of the
Secretariat which was signed by Foreign Ministers of member countries on
17 November 1986 at Bangalore, India contains various clauses concerning
the role, structure and administration of the SAARC Secretariat as well
as the powers of the Secretary-General.
In several recent meetings the heads of state or government of member
states of SAARC have taken some important decisions and bold initiatives
to strengthen the organisation and to widen and deepen regional
The SAARC Secretariat and Member States observe 8 December as the
SAARC Charter Day.
Committee on Economic Cooperation
The Committee of Economic Cooperation consists of Secretaries of
Commerce of member states and it promotes regional cooperation in the
The Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) was
signed in Dhaka during the 7th SAARC Summit, in 1993. It aims to promote
and sustain mutual trade and the economic cooperation among the South
Asian States, through exchanging concessions.
Later, with the broad objective of moving towards a South Asian
Economic Union (SAEU), the SAARC Member States signed the Agreement on
SAARC Free Trade Area (SAFTA) on 6 January 2004 at the 12th SAARC Summit
held in Islamabad and came into force on 1 January 2006.
SAFTA has six core elements covering trade liberalization programme,
rules of origin, institutional arrangements, safeguard measures, special
and differential treatment for least developed countries (LDCs), and
dispute settlement mechanisms.
Treaties SAARC Social Charter
The signing of the Social Charter by the Heads of State/ Government
at the 12th SAARC Summit held in Islamabad in 2004, has been a major
development in SAARC.
The Social Charter aims at promoting the welfare of the peoples of
South Asia and accelerating economic growth and social progress through
poverty alleviation, improving health conditions of peoples, human
resource development, empowerment of women, and providing welfare to the
Although the Social Charter is not a binding document, it underpins
the SAARC Charter objective of ‘providing all individuals the
opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potentials’.
SAARC Regional Convention of Suppression of Terrorism
The SAARC Regional Convention of Suppression of Terrorism was signed
during the Third SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in November 1987. This was
the result of a series of discussions held between Member States for
more than two years starting from very first SAARC Summit held in Dhaka.
This Convention recognizes dangers posed by the spread of terrorism
and its harmful effects on peace and cooperation and also the
sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States.
This Convention came into force on 22 August 1988. Later, an
Additional Protocol to this Convention was signed during the 12th SAARC
Summit in Islamabad on 06 January 2004. This Additional Protocol updates
the Convention by adding terrorist financing and has been ratified by
all Member States.
SAARC Regional Agenda
The Agenda of Regional Cooperation under SAARC has expanded over the
years and are broadly covered under the Regional Integrated Programme of
Action (RIPA). In addition, a number of issues are given high priority.
At the 12th SAARC Summit held in Islamabad in 2004, the Heads of
States/Government recognized poverty alleviation as the greatest
challenge facing the peoples of South Asia and declared poverty
alleviation as the overarching goal of all SAARC activities.
Co-operation with the International Organisations
SAARC has established institutionalised arrangements for cooperation
with a number of other regional groupings and international and regional
It has entered into cooperative arrangements through the signing of
MOUs with organizations like the EC, UNCTAD, ESCAP, UNIFEM, APT, ITU,
UNDP, UNDCP, UNEP, UNIFEM, CIDA, WHO, ADB, PTB, UNAIDS, UNICEF, World
Bank etc. SAARC has recently agreed with ASEAN Secretariat for a
Partnership Work Plan (2004-2005) in a number of areas including trade,
HIV/AIDS, energy and tourism. SAARC has a dialogue forum with ASEAN and
EU on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly sessions.
SAARC designated years
SAARC has designated years to draw special focus on specific social
issues and has contributed to raising awareness, mobilizing resources
and adopting/adapting national programs.
1989 Year of Combating Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking 1990 Year of
Girl Child 1991 Year of Shelter 1992 Year of Environment 1993 Year of
Disabled persons 1994 Year of the Youth 1995 Year of Poverty Alleviation
1996 Year of Literacy 1997 Year of Participatory Governance 1999 Year of
Biodiversity 2002-2003 Year of Contribution of Youth to Environment 2004
Year of Awareness for TB & HIV/AIDS 2006 South Asia Tourism Year
SAARC has also declared decades on specialized themes;
1991-2000 Decade of the Girl Child 2001-2010 Decade of the Rights of