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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 May 1980.

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 another’s problem;

* 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 cultural traditions’

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.

The Association also convenes meetings at Ministerial level on specialized themes.

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.

Standing Committee

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).

Programming Committee

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 Activities.

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 implementation.

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 term.

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 co-operation.

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 economic field.

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 children.

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 organisations.

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 the Child.


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