Saarc must reform . . . or perish
SYED BADRUL AHSAN
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) has just had its latest meeting of heads of government in the Maldives. And true to form, the summit came up with a declaration re-emphasising the objectives which it feels it ought to be trying to translate into reality. Since the organisation was first floated in the Bangladesh capital in 1985, it has gone through various motions, a multitude of regional as well as global crises which have often left it quite out of breath. For enthusiasts of regional cooperation in the region, Saarc has generally been looked upon as a vehicle to the future. For cynics, it has hardly graduated from being the social club of regional leaders it has always been to something of a higher purpose. For critics, the organisation has remained stymied by the very nature of its birth, which of course is its structural inability to dwell on bilateral issues which have consistently affected diplomacy among its member-states.
There is, of course, hardly any gainsaying the fact that Saarc has in a substantial way opened new doors to closer interaction among the states of South Asia. In a region defined by conflicts of a multifarious nature — read Kashmir, Indo-Bangladesh water-sharing, the LTTE factor in Sri Lanka, terrorism, et al — the arrival of Saarc in late 1985 was seen as a rather unprecedented sort of development. And that was quite natural given the many instances of inter-state and regional linkages working around the globe at that point of time. There was certainly the European Union with its dynamism; and closer to South Asia, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), having forged itself into shape in 1967, was finally showing signs of branching out into a more activist dimension. It was in a similar spirit that Saarc took form and substance. Suddenly, there were all the aspirations, all the dreams of the people of South Asia coming together which began to exercise the popular mind.
Twenty six years on, much of the hope generated by Saarc has simply turned out to have been misplaced. A particular reason here is, of course, the very nature of the Saarc charter, which does not permit bilateral issues to be raised before its many councils. From that perspective, the public perception has been — and quite rightly too — that the organisation has regularly operated on an eerie basis of unreality. With many of its member-states engaged in bilateral disputes with one another, some of which go back to the 1940s, and yet being hamstrung by Saarc rules in the sense that they cannot be deliberated on at Saarc meetings, the body has quite had its organisational structure suffering from persistent enervation. Indeed, it may well be argued that the unwillingness of its founding fathers in the 1980s to have Saarc get trapped in acrimonious debates on regional issues and instead demonstrate something of the positive kind through a feel-good factor has clearly left it stunted as a body.
Which is why the seriousness associated with organisations bringing together nations either in a regional or global context has been a missing factor with Saarc. The meetings — and that includes the summitry taking place every two years — turn out to be no more than festive occasions for regional leaders and government officials, one that is punctuated by a plethora of platitudes and much entertainment in the form of regional cultural manifestations. And once the summits are over, it is the old issues the member-states of Saarc go back to, the old impediments to bilateral ties which quite undermine the spirit of Saarc. That certainly begs the question: is it not time for Saarc to reinvent itself? One assumes, though, that the reinvention will take account of the ground realities at work in the region and that political leaders in all member-states of Saarc will be ready and willing to place all uncomfortable matters on the table in the way the EU does it, in the way the Arab League does it. A particular assumption about Saarc relates to the clear political dominance India has over the organisation, in terms of size, resources and global reach. This dominance has left all other member-states of the body in the role of minnows unable to get their ideas across. Another perception to explain the inability of Saarc to expand in terms of influence relates to the lingering nature of the conflict between India and Pakistan, the bitterness of which takes away from the idealism upon which the organisation was formed in the mid-1980s.
The point should be obvious: Saarc will either reform or perish. And perishing would be easy. There are quite a few instances of regional organisations dying a slow, unlamented death in our times. The Baghdad Pact, soon to be renamed CENTO, shaped under American influence in the 1950s, was by the late 1960s as good as dead. And then there was SEATO, again a vehicle of the American crusade against communism, which died quietly with no one mourning its passing. The Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), forged in the mid-1960s by Kemal Gursel, Ayub Khan and the Shah to bring Turkey, Pakistan and Iran together is today a tale of a dead past. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was supplanted by the African Union, the better to inject dynamisn into a continent as it sought to deal with the rest of the world. The results have been unimpressive.
And yet Saarc could survive, through a reshaping of itself. With Afghanistan already in as the eighth member of the organisation and with talk of Turkey coming in with observer status, there is yet the feeble hope that Saarc could breathe new life into itself. And that means the courage on the part of its leading lights to be able to reform its charter, to be in a position to place on the table all those issues which in our times call for a sophisticated and informed approach toward a resolution. Saarc must move beyond an exchange of social pleasantries, toward an intellectual plumbing of ideas that will contribute to the growth of a better, happier South Asia.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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