SAARC is at such a point in its history that it must now be moving, and be seen to be moving, decisively forward. The alternative is regression and obsolescence
The SAARC process survives on the summits, and during the sometimes extended gaps between meetings it wanders like a rudderless ship, without any power or a sense of direction. Since the organisation was established in 1985, at least four scheduled summits have been scuttled for various reasons. The first was in 1989, when President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka expressed his inability to hold the meeting given the presence of the Indian peacekeeping force (IPKF) in his country. The venue was moved to the Maldives the next year, but when Sri Lanka prepared to hold the following Summit in 1991, it had to be postponed at the last minute as King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan expressed his inability to attend on “health grounds”. The situation proved to be embarrassing for the host country and to SAARC itself, particularly since the leaders of Pakistan and Bangladesh had already arrived in Colombo for the summit. In December 1993, the summit scheduled for Dhaka could not be held due to the communal riots that engulfed India and some of its neighbouring countries in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. And in November 1999, India called for a postponement of the Summit in Kathmandu just two weeks before the event, “on account of the military coup d’etat in Pakistan”.
When SAARC leaders finally get together for the Kathmandu Summit in January 2002 after a gap of nearly three years, they will be trying to make the best of a checkered history. This meeting is happening under the shadow of yet another round of dangerously escalated India-Pakistan tensions, following the failed Agra meeting of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf, the confusion following the American action in Afghanistan, and, lastly, the terrorist attack of 13 December on the Lok Sabha.
The slow pace of the development of South Asian regionalism has left a mixed impression on the peoples of the region. Cynics often compare the member countries of SAARC to seven porcupines attempting to consummate a relationship, while its staunchest supporters swear by it as the most viable means for growth and development of the region. Even the Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) that was mandated by the 1997 Male Summit to present a plan of action for SAARC “that can and must be achieved by the year 2020” provided varied assessment of the SAARC process. While recognising that the organisation’s achievements over the years had been significant, it nevertheless argued that “it has fallen short of the aspirations underlying the formation of the Association” due to the lack of political will, vicissitudes of the regional political climate, and lack of adequate resources for carrying out these commit-ments. It added, “As a consequence, disjunction developed between the decisions taken by the association and their implementation.”
The “eminent persons” point at the following flaws in the SAARC process:
- failure to take up hard core economic issues for nearly eight years after the organisation’s establishment;
- only marginal progress achieved through SAPTA, the preferential trade agreement;
- inability to develop a collective leverage in global economic negotiations;
- failure to include key economic issues like energy, manufacturing, services, money and finance within the SAARC area of cooperation;
- absence of any clearly delineated set of priorities for selection of its Integrated Program of Action (IPA) activities and plans of action to implement them;
- inability of the sectoral ‘regional centres’ to emerge as the centres of excellence, and their involvement mostly in routine activities which are no different from the national centres with which they are associated;
- ineffectiveness of the regional conventions (such as on Suppression of Terrorism and Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) and agreements (such as the SAARC Food Security Reserve) in building inter-state relationships within the region; and
- stagnation of schemes involving people-to-people contact that have “degenerated into being a mere tokenism”.
Equally critical was another panel created by the Secretary General of SAARC, the Independent Expert Group (IEG), which was asked to examine the core activities of the organisation under the rubric of IPA. It noted that despite the initiative taken by governments in 1995, “there had been no effective improvement in the functioning of the IPA so vital for the SAARC process.” The IEG enumerated a variety of reasons for this failure:
- lack of prioritisation in the activities of the organisation’s Technical Committees;
- inadequate level of representation of member states;
- duplication of activities;
- lack of well-identified, target-oriented and timebound programmes;
- lack of adequate monitoring, implementation and evaluation;
- inability to sustain activities once initiated;
- budgetary constraints;
- poor coordination; and
- non-implementation of decisions.
When the leaders meet in Kathmandu, they will have to deal with the backlog of issues and give direction on the course SAARC is to take for the future. Given the backdrop of regional tensions, some observers are saying that SAARC should not aim high during this 2002 summit, and consider just the reality of a summit meeting as success enough. This would be most inappropriate, however, because one should expect much more from the SAARC process even in the midst of the regional geopolitical crisis. SAARC is at such a point in its history that it must now be moving, and be seen to be moving, decisively forward. The alternative is regression, obsolescence, and perhaps even a tragic winding down of a process that even today carries so much promise.
There are many issues in need of action before this summit. Among them is the draft treaty on the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which was circulated to the member governments more than a year and half ago, to which only one country has so far given its feedback to the Secretariat. As the decision to have free trade by 2001 has already been made moot, a concrete decision needs to be taken on how and when the provision for free trade in the region is to be implemented.
Another issue is that of poverty alleviation, on which an earlier Summit had prematurely, if understandably, called for the eradication of poverty from the region by 2002. There is also the matter of drafting a SAARC Social Charter, on which some work has already been done although work remains. The Report of the Group of Eminent Persons also lies on the table before the prime ministers and presidents in Kathmandu. This Report contains a comprehensive set of recommendations for not only taking SAARC into an economic union by the beginning of the second decade of this millennium, but addresses social issues and the development of SAARC institutions to meet future challenges. Since a September 1999 informal meeting of the South Asian foreign ministers in New York already accepted in principle the creation of an economic union in South Asia, the Summiteers will also face questions on this front.
Past summit experiences show that while inaugural speeches of the South Asian leaders can be very bold and upbeat, the final declaration often tends to be diluted and indecisive. On top of that, when SAARC falters at the implementation of even the downscaled declarations and agreed programmes, the consequences are most debilitating for an organisation with such an image problem. This is particularly so since SAARC lives amidst unexpectedly high expectations built up over the years among the peoples of the region. Even a high-sounding declaration, so easily drafted in earlier summits, may be a challenge during the 11th summit, given the state of relations between India and Pakistan. On the other hand, the challenge before the presidents and prime ministers is to go beyond the high-sounding declaration, to see that some important components required to move the organisation forward are incorporated in its content. They include a number of principles that are important in resuscitating the SAARC process.
- Reaffirmation of political will—There is a strong feeling in the region that the necessary political will to make regionalism succeed is lacking in South Asia. This could not be further from the truth, since without a political will SAARC would not have existed in the first place. What maybe be lacking today is the sustenance factor to get regionalism moving in the direction that was originally intended. When SAARC was only beginning to take shape during the 1980s, the regional leaders even relied on the opportunities provided by the SAARC meetings to settle some bilateral issues behind the official forum. During the Dhaka (1985) and Bangalore (1986) summits, the leaders of Bangladesh and India took time to sort out such issues as the Chakma insurgency and the Teen Bigha dispute, and were also able to make conciliatory steps towards the resolution of some differences over the sharing of river waters. Similar encounters between Indian and Pakistani leaders in Banglore and Kathmandu (1987) culminated in three major bilateral agreements, among which was an understanding to prohibit attack on each other’s nuclear installations and facilities.
Traditionally, regional cooperation has been accepted by governments is South Asia as not being a substitute for bilateral relations. While reiterating that same principle, governments also need to emphasise today that bilateral relations will not be at the cost of the SAARC process, on which more than 1.3 billion people have come to depend.
- Expediting economic ‘integration’—The concept of economic integration has been anathema to regionalism in South Asia since it is seen by some governments as somehow wresting away national sovereignty, the raison d’etre of the nation-state itself. Even when the IEG met to consider its recommendations, there was reluctance to use the term. The experience of over 40 regional organisations from around the globe already disprove this dated notion of what economic integration is. Indeed, while the choice to cooperate and determine timeframes is a political decision, the means that are relied upon operate largely through economic integration. The classic Balassa model used by regional groupings for economic integration is the one recommended by the Group of Eminent Persons, and includes such successive steps as free trade, custom union and finally economic union. Given that the GEP Report has already drawn a blueprint for SAARC to move ahead on economic matters, the Eleventh Summit should try and expedite integration measures by prioritising issues and identifying concrete steps. Given that the old deadline is already long gone, it is important to set a new time frame for the preparation of the SAFTA treaty, and determine when it will be implemented.
- Making decisions on social issues through participatory process—To some extent, civil society, private sectors and the Track II process, in general, are ahead of the inter-governmental process in exploring and identifying some of the core issues that afflict the region. The problem so far is that there exists no effective mechanisms through which their output can reach the decision-making level. Similarly, avenues also need to be found to involve civil society in preparing plans and programmes that affect all the people of the region. The drafting of the SAARC Social Charter through a participatory process is one of many such areas which the Summit can endorse in Kathmandu.
- Strengthening SAARC institutional mechanisms—SAARC’s checkered history reveals that some of its institutions are either malfunctioning or operating below the average capacity needed to make the regional body effective. As the organisation prepares to embrace greater integration, there is a need to strengthen the core institutions without which expansion and consolidation of future regional activities will have no meaning. Decision-making bodies, such as the summits themselves and the Council of Ministers, need to be made functional while meeting on a regular basis under the SAARC Charter principles, while additional ministries (such as finance, planning, commerce, industry, tourism, and so on) have to be roped in to meet future requirements within a clearly-defined institutional structure to the harmonise policies of the member states.
On the other hand, supporting SAARC institutions are either non-existent or very weak. Regional financial institutions, such as a regional bank or a South Asian Development Fund, need to be given shape very soon to support projects and programmes that the organisation will have to undertake to sustain greater integration. And the SAARC Secretariat, which is currently seen as a regional foreign ministry of the member states, will have to be restructured to enable it to act as a professional institution, rather than as just another assignment slot for diplomats from individual member states. Obviously, the Kathmandu Summit cannot prescribe a ready-made formula, but it can agree to set up appropriate mechanisms to carry out the needed reform within the next couple of years.
- Emphasising efficacy and performance—A key theme which the Kathmandu Summit could embrace is efficacy and performance. As of today, SAARC has no effective monitoring mechanisms to keep track of its activities and to suggest how current and future programs may be implemented more effectively. Whatever runs or does not run is left to the dedication and ability of individuals and the concurrence of an unwieldy structure of seven member governments’ foreign ministries. It is not surprising that such a structure does not function, when there is not adequate feedback, monitoring and quality control. There is a need to develop a new mechanism, preferably responsible to the Council of Ministers, which will not only act as watchdog but also prioritise programmes and chart sequential steps toward the goal of regional integration.
Diplomacy is the art of the possible. Anything can happen during the Kathmandu Summit, despite the doomsday theories. SAARC’s future is contingent upon political initiatives. Although the summit is going to be held in the shadow of regional tension caused by terrorism, even a simple commitment by member states to promptly approve the required national ‘enabling legislation’ of the SAARC Convention on Suppression of Terrorism could significantly improve the regional political environment. This treaty has already been ratified by all the countries of the region, though it is awaiting enabling legislation in each of the countries that would make it operational.
ICIMOD and the International Year of Mountains 2002
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) was established in 1983 out of widespread concern about the environmental degradation of mountain habitats and the increasing poverty of mountain communities in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas.
The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, covers 3,500 kilometres of mountain areas from Afghanistan in the west to Pakistan, India, China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar in the east. The region is home to approximately 150 million people and the topography and events in the mountains affect the lives of many more in the plains and river basins below. The region is not only the world’s highest mountain region, but also the most populous and fragile. It is at one and the same time a region of great risk and hazard and one of opportunities and wealth in terms of natural resources, cultures, and beauty. Mountains everywhere are the guardians of one of the earth’s most precious resources: water. Mountains are the water towers of the world
To draw the world’s attention to the issues of mountain areas, the UN designated 2002 AD as the International Year of Mountains (IYM). It is a year that has come to have special significance for mountain peoples and the organisations and individuals working with them. As one of these mountain organisations, the first to be established globally for integrated mountain development, ICIMOD has a programme of activities for IYM.
During a recent meeting of the ICIMOD Board of Governors in Bhutan, it was decided to launch activities that include renewed collaboration with Afghanistan, an International Conference of Mountain Women in Kathmandu, Nepal (May 2002) and a High Summit video conference among the mountain regions of the world (May 2002) in collaboration with the Italian High Summit. Other regions involved include Africa, Europe and South and North America. This occasion will be aired worldwide on the intemet and on television. Noted scholars and personalities will discuss topics such as nature, environment, culture, economy, risks and policy.
Five of ICIMOD’s member countries are members of SAARC. The fact that the Eleventh SAARC Summit will take place in Kathmandu at the beginning of January 2002 augers well for the benefit of mountain people in the region. ICIMOD has a long history of collaboration with the mountainous areas of SAARC countries and will strengthen this collaboration during observance of the International Year of the Mountains. Accordingly, ICIMOD takes advantage of this occasion to welcome all the SAARC delegates to Kathmandu and wish the Summit a resounding success.