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Reviewing the SAARC process

The 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been scheduled to be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka from July 27 to August 3, 2008.

Almost two decades after enunciation, the objectives in the Charter; despite some achievements in aggregate and discrete realms, the goals to improve the quality of life remains largely immaterialised for the majority of people in Member States.

The elemental fact is the entire SAARC process is not focused on issues of democracy and human rights. Since its inception SAARC seems to focus on technical or economic cooperation.


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In the past, SAARC was taken as a club of military/monarchical dictators and unaccountable so-called democratic leaders. Now the situation has changed. SAARC should not continue such a legacy.

Recently, South Asian for Human rights, a regional INGO (former Indian PM I.K. Gujral is chairman) has carried out an assessment on SAARC’s role. The purpose of the study was to obtain an update of SAARC process in two matters, democracy and human rights.

The attempt was focused to recommend the possible role of South Asian civil societies to intervene on the issues. The civil society can play a greater effective role to promote human rights and deepening democracy within the framework of SAARC.

Fortunately, I got that opportunity. I found SAARC needs to address democracy and human rights substantially in principles, provisions and processes. It is high time to review the SAARC process as to weather it is meeting the aims and objectives contained therein the Charter.

The political system affects the life of the people in Member States. This is a sensitive subject no doubt; however there could be some commitment by the leaders of the region, at least at a philosophical and theoretical level in favour of democracy and human rights within the SAARC process.

The SAARC Charter makes no mention of democracy, the system of government it wishes to develop as an instrument to accomplish the social and political goals that South Asians aspire to. It was probably natural in 1980s, considering the character of the majority of founding regimes that could not have absorbed such sentiments readily.

However, now there should be no need to continue the cold war legacy. Despite the collapse of USSR and wave of democracy, SAARC is showing an indifference to democracy.

The Charter came close to making a statement remotely resembling an ideology as mentioned under Article I, the need “to provide all individuals opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potentials”.

But all know the tradition among the Third World authoritarians, in which such concession is only a part of the routine where they feel obliged to talk about people’s participation, social progress and even cultural development.

There is an earnest need to review the principles of SAARC to address these issues. Firstly SAARC should address civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and secondly democracy as the instrument to ensure human rights through accountable and transparent governance in the region.

India’s role is particularly crucial. As the biggest and oldest functioning democracy in the region, with tremendous economic clout, it is certainly in position to take SAARC in this direction.

The political leadership will not be ready easily in South Asia. So, South Asian civil society has a lot to do together. The prevailing atmosphere of mistrust especially in India-Pakistan relationship at the governments’ level along with the civil society and non-governmental engagement is hindering the SAARC process.

The true civil society can play a pivotal role for regional solutions. South Asians should learn from the other regional articulations and engagements.

In short, South Asians must realise the South Asian dream that is derived not so much from our past glory, perhaps, as by the opportunities we see ahead for responsibly fulfilling South Asian destiny.

The dream then captures the imagination of more than 1.6 billion people in the region, irrespective of the intrusion of state boundaries, religion, ethnicity, gender, caste, creed, political belief and other social characteristics.

This is a formidable challenge, but a challenge we must face.

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