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SAARC: give priority for people’s security

This should be an excellent time for SAARC’s annual summit. A number of welcome developments have taken place in South Asia since the last such meeting, so as to raise fresh hopes that SAARC might finally begin to fulfil its potential.

Most significantly, the cause of democracy has made signal advances in the region. With characteristically little fuss but with clear vision and purpose, Bhutan has transformed itself into a parliamentary democracy.

Power, voluntarily ceded by a far-seeing monarch, now rests with a democratically elected Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Significant changes

Next door in the Himalayas, Nepal, too, has made a democratic transition, a severely contested one but decided ultimately by the ballot. The full implications of the momentous events culminating in the abolition of the monarchy are yet to be revealed but there is no doubt that the critical decisions for the future are now in the hands of those returned to Parliament through elections.

In Pakistan also the political landscape has been transformed by elections, which have served to restore the upper hand of the political parties at the expense of the self-appointed President and the army. Many questions remain to be resolved but significant change has already taken place.

Bangladesh remains veiled in an army-driven regime though there are promises of elections after the current cleaning up of public institutions.

Thus for the main part SAARC has advanced towards a shared political culture of democracy, which obviously lays the base for greater harmony among the members and better mutual cooperation.

Yet while the cause of democratic rule has advanced, other less welcome events have also taken place. Most troubling is the increased level of terrorism and violence in the entire region.

In Afghanistan, SAARC’s newest member, the Taliban who were routed by the USA and its allies just a few years ago have revived and resumed their bid for ascendancy.

Pakistan’s frontier areas are believed to provide a base and sanctuary for their increasingly bold attacks on the Afghan armed forces and the US-led international forces supporting them.

Angry exchanges between Kabul and Islamabad mark the deteriorating relations between these neighbours. India has become a target, as seen in the shocking attack on its Kabul Embassy, and there are apprehensions of stepped up infiltration into Kashmir.

Internally, India is reeling under multiple attacks in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Several insurgencies continue to trouble South Asia, some with cross-border assistance and support.

In these circumstances, the primary concern of the leaders of the SAARC countries has to be the security of their people and societies rather than questions of regional cooperation, and the threats that originate next door cannot be ignored.

It is the sadly familiar tale of beckoning possibilities halted by violent intervention: the eternal yin and yang of South Asia.Thus it is not surprising that as the summit dawns, one of the main agreements for the Heads to consider is aimed at concerting action against terrorism.

They are expected to adopt a treaty for mutual legal assistance, which should provide for action through legal channels against criminals who strike and escape across the border. One of the unifying factors in SAARC is the shared system of law, so a treaty of this nature can have real practical value.

It all depends, of course, on the political will of the members: they have been seen as the chief source of trouble for each other and their clandestine activities in support of terrorist activity will surely not be halted by the signing of yet another agreement on the subject.

But yet it promises to be a step forward. Though security matters are very much to the fore at this juncture, they are not the raison d’etre of SAARC.

The main purpose of the organisation is to improve economic cooperation among the members, and some agreements to advance this cause are also to be placed before the Heads.

Tangible result

SAARC has never suffered from a shortage of good ideas: an Eminent Persons Group was constituted more than a decade ago and its report is full of concepts that could transform South Asia. Every Summit tends to add to the store of useful ideas and programmes, and this time a Development Fund is to be launched.

Pitched at an initial corpus of $307 million, this not the sort of measure that will transform the region but yet it can be a useful addition to the stock of agreements. What we are yet to see is some tangible result from the far-reaching earlier agreements like that on the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA).

This was expected to remove barriers at a stroke and permit free commercial exchanges throughout the region, and a deadline was agreed for its implementation.

This is especially unfortunate at a time when several of the members, led by India, are advancing rapidly and are in a position to derive and to provide much benefit from better trade and investment arrangements. Efforts to strengthen SAARC and make it more relevant have not ceased.

Among these is the enlarging of the organisation by inviting observers to its annual meetings. At one stage, an invitation to a SAARC meeting may not have been greatly prized, but no more. As South Asia has taken off, many countries have shown an interest in SAARC and the circle of consultation has grown apace.

This can have a somewhat dubious aspect, for some members would like to compensate for the size and dominance of India by bringing in observers like China. Nevertheless, expanding the circle is to be seen as a way of enhancing SAARC’s relevance and of strengthening South Asia’s voice in regional and global affairs.

In addition to the several countries already included in the list, including the USA, Japan, EU, China and others, the Colombo meeting is to consider adding Australia and Myanmar to the group.

Internal reform

Stronger outreach of this nature can only benefit SAARC but the organisation is in need of internal reform. The Charter is deliberately drawn up so as to keep the supranational authority of the body at a minimum.

To an extent, this is all to the good: SAARC is not permitted to take up political differences among its members, which is wise, for discussions on such issues would soon shake the organisation to pieces.

But it has also been endowed with a deliberately powerless organisational structure that now needs review. The Secretary-General is appointed by rotation among members and has very limited powers to push and prod the governments to implement the agreements they themselves have reached.

Upgrading the Secretary-General would be a step towards making SAARC more effective.

He or she could be elected rather than nominated rotationally, with a longer term of office and with significantly enhanced power of initiative. This could help energise regional cooperation in South Asia.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary

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