SAARC FAILS TO FLY, AGAIN
3 treaties bite the dust despite readiness of India, Bangladesh; experts think reform can make it effective
The Saarc pulled a hamstring, once again.
The failure to push through any of the three agreements supposed to be signed at the 18th Saarc summit in Kathmandu yesterday proved the member countries are rather more interested to go for bilateral deals.
It also exposed that the architecture of Saarc is faulty. Any member country’s reluctance on any deal can spoil the whole game as it happened this time with Pakistan staying away from signing the deals.
Such approach to cooperation comes in sharp juxtaposition with the architecture of the European Union. In the EU, if any country refuses to sign a deal, other members can still go ahead.
Kathmandu showcased what happened over and over in three decades since the birth of the Saarc. Leaders make rhetorical speeches and spend time on expensive retreats and sightseeing, and head home forgetting what’s said in the summit hall, said foreign affairs analysts almost identically.
“Saarc remains largely ineffective, hostage to the political polemics of member-nations particularly India and Pakistan,” said Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of International Relations department of Dhaka University.
There had been high expectations about the 18th Saarc summit with Indian Prime Minister Narandra Modi calling for a stronger Saarc and laying emphasis on India’s neighbourhood.
Modi’s approach created a lot of enthusiasm among the member countries about what he would bring to the table to make the eight-nation grouping a regional powerhouse.
It also raised hopes that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation might lift itself out of a situation that other multilateral bodies often find puzzling.
Three agreements were supposed to be signed at the 18th Saarc summit to improve road and rail connections and integrate power trade in the region.
The agreements are: Saarc Motor Vehicles Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic amongst Saarc member states, Saarc Regional Railways Agreement and Saarc Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity).
Bangladesh and India were ready to ink the agreements. But none of those was signed due to differences of opinion among some member countries, particularly Pakistan, turning this summit a non-achiever like the previous ones.
Pakistan expressed reservations about all three agreements while Bhutan opposed the motor vehicles agreement.
This has pushed the future of Saarc agreements into serious uncertainty, foreign affairs experts said.
Since its inception in 1985, Saarc signed a number of agreements and conventions, but faltered in translating ideas into collective actions.
For an instance, the Saarc Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism was inked in 1987, within two years of the birth of the organisation.
Additional protocols to the convention updated the strategies in 2004. But, in reality, it has not been much effective, as several South Asian nations have seen a rise in terrorism.
There are other examples as well.
The Saarc Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA), which was finalised in 1993, came into effect in 1995. It was followed by the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in 2004.
But those remain unimplemented, as issues of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers are yet to be addressed.
Moreover, the Saarc Food Bank Agreement was signed in 2007, but it is yet to be implemented. Saarc Development Fund was constituted in 2008 and Saarc Seed Bank in 2011, but none of those has seen much success.
Amid the failure to reach a consensus on signing agreements, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought active support from Saarc leaders to advance the implementation of regional connectivity to increase intra-regional trade.
“Bangladesh will appreciate the early signing of the Regional Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Regional Railways Agreement. I urge all Saarc leaders on the podium to lend support to advance implementation of the agreed regional outcomes on connectivity,” she told the summit meeting yesterday.
Indian PM Narendra Modi said infrastructure is South Asian region’s “greatest weakness” and its most pressing need. “I want to set up a Special Purpose Facility in India to finance infrastructure projects in our region that enhances our connectivity and trade”, he said.
Foreign affairs experts said though Saarc has succeeded in evolving as a forum and a framework, its main limitation is it doesn’t have the capacity to devise instruments and techniques for consultations on bilateral and multilateral problems.
Several experts have called for a road map for reforms to overcome the current impasse in Saarc.
They suggested addressing political differences, immediate implementation of SAFTA, and linking energy sector through a unified South Asian electric power grid system.
NOVEMBER 27, 2014