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
Power, voluntarily ceded by a far-seeing monarch, now rests with a
democratically elected Prime Minister and his Cabinet.
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
Bangladesh remains veiled in an army-driven regime though there are
promises of elections after the current cleaning up of public
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
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.
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.
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
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
Upgrading the Secretary-General would be a step towards making SAARC
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