saarclogoMahmood Hasan

It is customary during summits for leaders to meet each other bilaterally and exchange greetings and notes. Summits of regional groupings become even more important because their goals are common. Since Summit Declarations etc. are not drafted by leaders (sherpas actually do that) they have ample time to sort out bilateral differences and make breakthroughs.

Regrettably, some leaders at the 18th SAARC Summit did not utilise the opportunity to have bilateral talks on the sideline. Narendra Modi did not have any structured bilateral meeting with Nawaz Sharif. They avoided meeting each other, reflecting strong tensions existing between India and Pakistan. It was only at the retreat that the two leaders shook hands and exchanged courtesies, that too because of Nepali PM Sushil Koirala’s efforts. How can SAARC make progress when egos stand in the way and run counter to the concept of regionalism?

To recall, Narendra Modi invited all the SAARC leaders to his inauguration ceremony last May. Nawaz – Modi bilateral meeting in Delhi at that time was thought to be the beginning of better relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours of South Asia. Soon after Nawaz’s Delhi visit tensions between the two countries rose over border shooting in disputed Kashmir. Relations between Islamabad and Delhi quickly soured. Nawaz and Modi carried that sour feeling to Kathmandu.

India – Pakistan relations actually is the major impediment in the development of SAARC. Neither of these members has ever tried to rise above their bilateral political problems to let regional cooperation grow unhindered. It is a peculiar mindset that bedevils Delhi and Islamabad when it comes to SAARC.

At a bilateral meeting Modi assured Sheikh Hasina that the Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty will be implemented soon. Modi, however, did not specify any time frame. Hasina also met Nawaz Sharif and discussed bilateral issues.

25th years of Saarc FDCThe Eighteenth SAARC Summit has just concluded in Kathmandu on November 27. Before the inauguration there were high hopes that the hamstrung organisation will get fresh life. The theme of the summit was “Deeper integration for peace, progress and prosperity.”

Though the Charter of SAARC requires that summits be held every year this summit came after a delay of three years. The 17th Summit was held in Addu City, Maldives in November 2011. Political instability in Nepal was one of the reasons for the delay. Deeply fractured Nepal’s polity is still trying to write its constitution.

All the eight leaders of SAARC attended the Summit, including representatives from nine observers. There is nothing to be excited about the 36-para Declaration adopted by the leaders.

One of the main handicaps of SAARC is Article 10 of the Charter. Article 10(1) requires that any decision to be implemented must be based on “unanimity.” This principle has actually paralysed the organisation. Article 10(2) stipulates that all bilateral contentious issues will be excluded from deliberations of the summits. These two provisions have in reality choked the organisation. This article has created a very narrow window to transact regional business.

The failure of the leaders to sign the two Agreements — Motor Vehicles Agreement and Regional Railways Agreement — is the case in point. Pakistan failed to get on board over these Agreements. Only the Agreement for Energy Cooperation was signed on the concluding day after hectic efforts.

The Charter of neighbouring Asean has obviated this problem by adopting the principle of “consensus” — freeing member states to go ahead with a project even if one or two members are not on board. If SAARC has to survive and be effective, leaders should actively consider amending the Charter, and allow consenting members to go ahead with a project. That in effect would be the creation of sub-regional groups under SAARC. The organisation should also be equipped with a larger budget to independently carry through its programmes.

The other problem that SAARC faces is the rank and status of the secretary general. The secretary general holds the rank of an ambassador. This is equivalent to the rank of joint secretary and above in the diplomatic services of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal. Thus, his interlocutors in SAARC capitals are not beyond the joint secretaries, dealing with SAARC issues in the respective foreign ministries. The secretary general rarely has opportunities to interact with the heads of governments of SAARC countries. The rank and status of the secretary general should be raised to the level of a full minister. That would ensure him access at higher levels in the member governments.

The SAARC region, which accounts for a quarter of world population, is also the world’s poorest region, with millions going to bed hungry every night. Freedom from poverty and underdevelopment will no doubt free the people of this region from insecurity — social, political, economic and national.

Since there are dozens of issues related to poverty alleviation, over the years SAARC was tempted to take up new projects. Since its first summit in Dhaka (1985), SAARC has signed a number of Agreements. It however, failed to push them to logical conclusions because of half-hearted commitment from the member countries.

Summit leaders should have concentrated on SAFTA — the original idea for which the organisation was created. Full implementation of the free trade area — which is relatively non-contentious — would have gone a long way to make the region more integrated and prosperous. It is a pity that inter-regional trade among SAARC countries accounts for only 5% of total world trade, though the potential is many times over. Instead of spreading thin over many projects SAARC should focus on do-able things.

SAARC summit will stop being a talking shop — making tall promises but ending short on performance — if the Charter is amended. Let us hope that the 19th Summit in Pakistan in 2016 does not end with old rhetoric. The next summit should change the Charter and convert the small window into a wide door for the regional organisation.


The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.
NOVEMBER 29, 2014



About Ehsan Abdullah

An aware citizen..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s