SAARC Secretary General Naeem U Hasan assumed office on I January 1996, and has presided over a period when the organisation seems to have, at long last, picked up some steam. He spoke to Himal South Asia amidst preparations for the Male summit, 9-11 May.
Is SAARC doing better as it enters its second decade?
Definitely, there has been an acceleration in activities. Whereas, in the past, meetings were limited to foreign ministers, now there are a lot of sectoral meetings. For example, the agriculture ministers of the region met before the food summit in Rome to chart out a common position, and the same happened for housing ministers before the habitat conference in Istanbul. This trend began with environment ministers coordinating their stance before the Rio Summit of 1992, but the process has now become institutionalised. The environment ministers have met recently again to prepare for the upcoming special session of the General Assembly on the environment.
But how is it that this new energy in SAARC that you mention is not evident to the lay public?
The regional countries are rapidly expanding their areas of cooperation and there is better coordination, but of course it will take a while for the public to feel this. Even what has happened, people do not know about.
What are your own priorities for the short period of two years that a Secretary General is allowed to serve?
I see it as my first priority to strengthen the Secretariat. It has to be made more professional, just as with the United Nations, the ASEAN and other secretariats. As the work and responsibility increases, we must enhance the numbers and quality of staff as well. As things stand, while the UN has five professional categories from PI to P5, here we have an incongruous structure, with seven senior directors who are generalists and their personal assistants, with nothing in between. As SAPTA takes off, and as we go in for projects, we will need to meet deadlines, coordinate work, monitor progress. We will need economists, environmentalists, information specialists, and so on. For the first ten years, and perhaps necessarily, SAARC maintained too much of an inward-oriented approach. More recently, however, we have reached out and put together half a dozen agreements, for example with the Japanese, the Canadians, the European Commission, and the UN agencies.
Have you found the member states agreeable to your proposals for reform?
Indeed. I am glad to say that the foreign ministers accepted all the proposals I made for strengthening the Secretariat at the December meeting of the Council of Ministers, which is the body which formulates all SAARC policies. The governments have also agreed to my proposal to review the workings of four regional centres, which have to be made more action-oriented, and their rules and regulations harmonised. The Integrated Programme of Action is a key ´component of SAARC, and includes I2 agreed areas of cooperation, from agriculture to tourism, which are overseen by technical committees. The IPA is at the heart of our programme, and I have been asked by the Council of Ministers to carry out an independent review. The role of the technical committees needs to be redefined. Earlier, the Secretariat used to be like a letterbox, but now we are being asked to analyse things and to make recommendations within our mandate. The Secretariat has never had so much responsibility, but our resources are the same. Before, there was too little work. Now there is too much.
How do you see the important office of the Secretary General evolving during your term and after your departure in December 1997?
The Secretary General is also being asked to play a more central role than before. For example, it has been agreed that the Secretary General must have a say in the selection of the seven directors, at the very least in the form of consultations with the appointing governments. The Secretariat will now provide job descriptions to the governments when a vacancy opens. The Secretary General is also now authorised to put down confidential reports on his staff. The Secretary General will henceforth be present at the United Nations General Assembly, when the SAARC foreign ministers meet each other and the foreign ministers of other regional organisations. Starting in Male in May, the Secretary General will also have the opportunity to address the summit gatherings.
The SAARC summits have often been ridiculed as nothing more than a platform for heads of state and government to hear themselves pontificate.
I would not agree with that view. The annual summits are very useful, beyond the fact that they are constitutionally mandated. The summits are actually even more important as SAARC becomes more active, for they provide the guidance and direction for new work. The summit declarations, after all, have provided the mandate for all of SAARC´s work and focus, whether it is in poverty alleviation, the girl child, or the environment. Let us not forget that the summits also play a useful role in providing opportunity for bilateral consultations. The new practice of taking a day´s retreat, where the leaders meet informally and without aides, has also proved very useful. Informal sessions in the ministerial and other meetings, incidentally, have also been productive, for they are more open and allow synergy to develop.
The December 1996 meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers chaired by then Indian Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral is said to have been a path-breaker. How true is this?
It was a crucial meeting, and the decisions taken, including on matters I have already mentioned, were forward-looking. The foreign ministers decided to lay stress in certain areas, including the need for better communications and transport between the regional countries. An expert group on telecommunications was established. They also emphasised the need for more people-to-people contact, more youth camps, more journalists travelling to each other´s countries, and more popular organisations to be involved with the SAARC process. The December meeting was also productive because the delegations came fully prepared. There was agreement that there should be more coordination and contact between the government, and that there should be a ´SAARC position´ on issues and events. This, I find, is in total contrast to the first ten years, when we were, as I said, very insulated.
What is your role on the sub-regional initiative announced by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal at or around the December meeting?
The Secretariat is not involved in the sub-regional initiative, which was apparently discussed informally between the delegations concerned.
Is the criticism levelled against the SAARC Charter, that it is ineffective because it does not allow bilateral discussed valid?
The prohibition on bilateral discussions is there in the SAARC Charter, and there will always be extreme hesitation to review the document. However, the criticism on that count seems to have receded as the organisation´s work has proceeded in other areas.
What are your comments on the ´asymmetry factor´ of SAARC, meaning India´s size?
As far as the large size of India and its economy are concerned, that is a geographic reality and there is no changing that. But, on the other hand,that could be a basis on which we may judge SAARC, that so much progress has been achieved even under the given circumstances. With this situation of having one large country in the middle, it is commendable the level of cooperation we have achieved. No other region has so much ´lopsidedness´, but despite this there is unanimity on actions that need to be taken. Any country can say “no” to any proposal on the basis of equality, and yet so much is happening.
Is there some ´lopsidedness´ in SAARC´s being overwhelmingly cosy with the business community to the exclusion of other non-governmental groups?
I think that the business community, particularly through the SAARC Federation and industry, has taken bold steps in promoting regional cooperation with its initiatives on trade and so on. Of course, you cannot rely on the private sector alone in promoting regional cooperation, Professional bodies and popular groups have to be equally involved. In order to involve all groups in the South Asian endeavour, the Secretariat must work as a facilitator.
We must evolve a structure, something like a SAARC solidarity fund, which will help monitor activities and help bring together the groups committed to working regionally.
Will it affect SAARC´s independence when it starts taking money from international donors for projects?
There is no fear of donor dependency, because we will only get into the activities which are in the collective interest of the member states. We will choose our activities carefully and not take up a project just because there is funding support. We are also clear that SAARC projects should not be at the expense of any national projects. For example, we are planning a project on cattle disease, given its possible cross-border spread. Flight safety is another problem that can to be looked at. So, this is the stage that we are about to enter.
Is SAPTA all hype and no substance?
SAPTA is extremely important because trade and commerce are such vital areas of activity and we have such a huge mass of humanity to support in South Asia. We account for only three percent of the global trade, and it is imperative for the seven countries to try for more trade and commercial contact. With the emergence of trade blocs, there is more and more collective bargaining. We must cooperate simply to survive, and then to utilise our potential. Since it came into force in December 1995, SAPTA has been moving through the predetermined path of implementation. There were 226 items on the list, and now there were over 1500 items. The ground work and paperwork is almost over, and in April we will review the implementation aspect. Meanwhile, we are studying the transformation of SAPTA into safta—South Asia as a free trade zone.