No miracles in Bhutan

Published on Apr 28 2010 // Main News

Wednesday, April 28, 2010
By Shamshad Ahmad
The 16th SAARC Summit opens in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, this morning with leaders of its eight member-states already assembled there for two-days of another “landmark” event. Every annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is a “landmark” event ending with a new declaration full of lofty rhetoric. The Thimphu summit is unlikely to do more.

There will be no miracles in Bhutan. We will only have yet another high-sounding but low-yield declaration in which the SAARC leaders will credit themselves for another “comprehensive and forward-looking milestone” in regional cooperation. But in reality, it will be only a rehash of the same old and familiar promises and commitments that have had no meaning to the region’s peoples and masses.

SAARC has been described as a talk-shop. An essential part of it is the “retreat” where the participating leaders meet in an informal setting for discussions on the overall regional situation. But the problem is that discussions on bilateral and security-related issues in the region are barred in SAARC.

This year’s central theme is climate change, on which the member-states will try to evolve a common SAARC position to be followed at the UN’s Climate Change Summit in Mexico later this year. Progress in implementation of outstanding projects, especially operationalisation of the $300-million SAARC Development Fund and a governing mechanism for the proposed SAARC University in Delhi will also be reviewed. The question of food security might figure in the talks.

Besides these routine activities, there will be no new groundbreaking initiatives in South Asia’s regional landscape. SAARC is notorious for its paper-loaded and meetings-oriented approach. It holds too many meetings with no results. Postponement of SAARC summits is a regular phenomenon. In 25 years it has held only 15 summits. Other meetings always materialize behind schedule and contribute nothing to regionalisation of trade.

It took ten years for SAARC members to agree on a preferential tariff arrangement and another ten to come round to a consensus on the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which became operational in 2006. Although it has been expected to have potential, intraregional trade is less than 2 per cent of GDP.

SAARC leaders have been talking of their organisation’s regional potential and stressing the need to make SAARC a “more vibrant institution” so that it becomes a strong voice in international economic forums, meaningfully contributing to regional peace, progress and prosperity. They also do not tire in expressing concern on the “inherent weaknesses and shortcomings” in SAARC’s “regional approach” and in calling for more pragmatic action plans in pursuing “attainable” regional cooperation goals. We are familiar with this rhetoric at every summit meeting where the leaders regularly “reaffirm” their commitment to the principles and objectives outlined in the SAARC Charter. This is what the Colombo Declaration adopted at the 15th SAARC Summit in 2008 said, and this is likely to be the sum total of the 16th Summit in Thimphu.

SAARC came into being as an expression of South Asia’s collective resolve to develop a regional cooperative framework and for the region to adapt itself to the changing times for the socio-economic well-being of its peoples. Woefully, even in the silver jubilee year of its existence, the desired change is nowhere in sight.

Despite the commonalities and strengths of the region, which is home to one-fifth of humanity, South Asia today remains one of the world’s poorest areas, with a vast majority of its peoples still living in grinding poverty and subhuman conditions. Five of SAARC’s eight member-states – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal – belong to the UN’s category of Least Developed Countries, or LDCs. South Asia’s total external trade is only a small fraction of the region’s GDP while its intraregional trade is equally non-consequential.

With its unbroken legacy of poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and conflict, SAARC, as a regional cooperation organisation, has not gone beyond declaratory pronouncements, with no tangible achievement to its credit. It has neither helped in improvement of the quality of life in the region, nor accelerated South Asia’s economic growth and social progress, nor even to the cultural development of its member-states. With one or two exceptions, SAARC countries also lag behind in development of genuine democracy, rule of law and good governance.

What has gone wrong with SAARC is a question that keeps agitating the minds of policymakers and practitioners of all sorts both within and outside this region. With its negligible output and a yawning gap between its promises and performance, SAARC still has a long way to go before it really comes of age. The common vision upholding the ideals of peace, stability, good-neighbourliness and mutually beneficial cooperation among its member-states remains a distant dream.

To perform, SAARC requires an enabling environment in the region, free of mistrust and hostility, without which no regional arrangement anywhere in the world has worked. In fact, political differences and bilateral disputes have impeded SAARC’s performance from the very outset. While many regional organisations around the world, including the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) came into existence to face common external challenges, the main problem of the SAARC region is internal: mutual mistrust.

SAARC, as an organisation, has many faults and weaknesses inherent in its structural and functional architecture, and even some glaring shortcomings in the principles and objectives laid down in its Charter. But the absence of an enabling environment is the biggest and deepest fault line that cuts across the region, leaving South Asia with little regional impulse for any notable process towards genuine regional cooperation.

The absence of an intraregional mechanism for settlement of disputes has also severely limited SAARC’s capacity to contribute to regional peace, security and development. Like ASEAN, this region also needs a Regional Forum to reinforce an intraregional process of confidence-building, preventive diplomacy and peaceful settlement of disputes.

SAARC’s faults can be removed through the rewriting of its Charter, redefining of its goals and objectives, reordering of its priorities and action plans, redress of its systemic aberrations, restructuring of the Secretariat, rationalisation of the decision-making and budgetary system, reinforcement of the organisation’s operational capacity and streamlining of its functional methodology.

But SAARC’s fault line will not be removed unless the member-states bring in greater political will, rising above narrow national interests and, instead, assuming joint ownership of their regional effort for mutual benefit.

South Asia needs an exceptional impulse to keep abreast with the changing times. This fresh regional impulse must spring from within South Asia. Only then will our peoples be able to harness the full potential of their region and to join the worldwide quest for economic growth and development.

The absence of any political role in SAARC has had a crippling effect on the organisation’s capacity to provide an environment for mutual cooperation. The absence of any political role in SAARC has had a crippling effect on the organisation’s capacity to provide an environment for mutual cooperation. No wonder, a former Sri Lankan foreign minister once warned that unless SAARC dealt with bilateral issues, “it will remain a deaf, dumb and blind Association.”

 The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: shamshad1941@yahoo.com

Adopted from The News