Vol. 4 Num 213 Wed. December 31, 2003  

Matters around us
Cheers for South Asian cooperation

Finally, the 12th summit of the seven south Asian countries is set to take place in Islamabad from January 4.Barring unforeseen development of serious proportion, the south Asian association for regional cooperation (SAARC) will have its much-awaited summit in Pakistan's capital overcoming obstacles that have unfortunately delayed the event. Undoubtedly, some degree of uncertainty did exist surrounding the summit even at the last stage of preparation ashost Pakistan was convulsed by a second attempt on the life of president Pervez Musharraf at the heart of the capital raising security concerns for the attending leaders. But the Pakistani president himself sought to allay such fears by saying that it is he who is the target of certain forces and not the SAARC summit or any leader and as such that the event must be held on the schedule. The confusion was further set at rest by Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who has decided to travel to Islamabad for the event as the hosts have assured full proof security.

As such, no uncertainty should exist for the January 4-6 conference of the leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, one should not forget that there are instances of the summit being called off at the last moment. Once it happened when Bangladesh received with shock that the event was postponed at the dying moments when the country had made all the preparatory works to host it. But it appears that any possibility of the summit not being held this time is very remote.

It is important that the SAARC summit takes place once in a calendar year as stipulated in the charter of the organisation. The charter provides this clearly for the reason that a summit once in a year should not be difficult since members come from one region and their number is not large.

Commonwealth leaders(CHOGM) meet once in two years, non-aligned and Islamic countries once in three years. All these groups have big number of members who come from different continents, whereas seven SAARC members are neighbours. Hence the decision for annual conference of the leaders is rational as this should also provide the members to have talks at highest level for overall interest of the region. Sadly, this vision did not work for the forum as annual summit remains a distant dream even though it was one of the basic intentions of the SAARC. Consequently, the forum suffered in the absence of meetings of their leaders at a regular interval.

Arguably, the SAARC secretariat and other levels meetings are useful, but consultations by the leaders are imperative for the development of the organisation, which is afflicted with manifold problems mainly stemming from political differences. After all, it is the summit that effectively helps clear the hindrances that scuttle the expected growth of the forum. The

summit failed to take place several times on the schedule and this delivered a body blow to the cooperative efforts of the member states. It is against this background that SAARC deserves cheers because it has come out of the limbo since delay and uncertainly about the meeting of the heads of government had cast a dark shadow on the activities of the forum that was founded through its first summit in Dhaka in 1985.

Bangladesh has particular reason to be anxious about the SAARC as this country mooted the idea . When late president Ziaur Rahman conceived the south Asian forum, the proposal was

greeted with a large degree of skepticism in certain circles and major nations in the region even dragged their feet in endorsing the concept. But once it took off following assiduously built painstaking efforts, SAARC did not look back and the nascent forum is now eighteen years old -- albeit the slow progress.

While the progress of the forum may be seen as somewhat disappointing, there can hardly be any denial that the seven countries have established cooperation in varied fields through the integrated programmes of actions(IPA) and the technical committees dealing with important areas have also performed reasonably well. But the inherent mistrust in the region and particularly between the two main players in the spectrum -- India and Pakistan -- continue to mar the expected development of the forum. The failure to stage the summits in time can be attributed mostly to the Indo-Pak rivalry. Summits were possible only after decks were cleared following improvement of New Delhi-Islamabad bilateral ties. It is no exception this time too.

The SAARC is not mandated to touch the contentious bilateral matters and as such the relationship among the member nations considerably influence the overall ambience. The fall out of this situation is obvious in the region and SAARC is often the casualty in many ways. While removal of this unhealthy condition is a daunting task and cannot be swept under the carpet, the spirit of collective welfare should take precedence over bilateral dealings. Nonetheless, it is heartening that India has agreed to take part in the event. Pakistan's bid to hold the summit in January,2003 was frustrated by Indian prime minister's refusal to attend citing worsening bilateral ties.

Conducive ground for the summit has been created as two countries moved meaningfully in recent times to improve relations. The attempt on the life of Pakistan president Gen. Pervez Musharraf just ahead of the summit could have provided India a pretext to stay away from the event. But New Delhi's willingness to attend has come as a big relief to the well-wishers of SAARC and also reflects its commitment to the forum. It is expected that all member states will participate in the deliberations in the same positive spirit that has been demonstrated in facilitating the staging of the long-delayed event. The summit is to deal with number of key issues that are inextricably linked with the economic well being of the people of the region.

Smaller nations of the group have bigger stakes in the forum while effective cooperative efforts by all seven countries can bring substantial benefits to 1.4 billion people most of whom are mired in abject poverty. SAARC with its resource constraints cannot do much but the achievements cannot be mean either. One wishes the Islamabad summit of the SAARC well and hopes that it will march ahead towards the avowed objectives surmounting the problems as far as possible.

Zaglul Ahmed Chowdhury is a senior journalist.