What ails SAARC?

By: Sahibzada Hussain Mohi-ud-Din Qadri

Since its inception in 1985, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been a non-starter. Given the sorry figure cut by the organization in implementing its charter it has rightly been dubbed as a debating club without any ability to address the challenges that the countries of the region face. Even the level of progress in the areas of economics and mutual trade has been less than expected. Keeping this track record in view there is a need of an earnest effort to review the charter of SAARC, identify the hindrances and offer a reform strategy to bring the aims of the organization in line with the demands of the times.

All the South Asian countries should understand the international security climate following 9/11 catastrophe. The American conduct in post-Nine Eleven period has brought about fundamental policy shifts in the security arrangements across the world. The reduction of the position of UN to insignificance by the US during its Iraq campaign illustrated new power dynamics. The old security and economic alliances underwent a process of serious review with growing realization among the countries that they should look for new alignments for greater economic and physical security. This reappraisal process was not confined to the countries at the wrong side of the US; rather the long-standing American allies are also the part of this review process. Now the focus of international community is towards regional alignments with greater stress on economic and security cooperation. Thus the policy of regionalism and bilateralism finds a newfound space in the foreign policy formulations of the countries; the aim being to reduce dependence on the US. Resultantly the old alliances have been reviewed and weaknesses overcome, while new alignments have taken place. But unfortunately South Asia remains unaware of and unresponsive to these challenges mired in old mindset of archrivals.

There should be no doubt about the fact that the establishment of SAARC was a much-needed step in order to enhance the regional cooperation among the member states. The natural conditions, international climate, geography of the region, history and culture also warranted a combined effort to pool together natural and human resources for achieving better living standards for millions of people who otherwise are condemned to perpetual misery and poverty. But in the effort to set up such an organization and demarcate its area of activity, some structural gaps were left, which in spite of the passage of some 18 years, have refused to be bridged thus keeping the organization unresponsive to the growing challenges. At the time of initiation of the SAARC, the thought in the minds of its founding fathers might well have been to bring all counties to negotiating table, hoping that the structural flaws would be overcome once the member states started interacting. However the exclusion of bilateral and contentious issues from charter of the SAARC has been one of the major factors inhibiting the growth of the organization.

This factor alone has given space to India and Pakistan to hold the whole organization hostage to their mutual recriminations with rest of member states constrained to move the organization forward on their own. Given the huge gulf of perceptions characterizing the mutual relationship between Indian and Pakistan, there is a least possibility that SAARC would be able to play an effective role unless the member countries share the realization of modifying its charter in a way as to use good offices of SAARC for discussions and dialogues on bilateral issues and facilitate their solutions. Some people might argue that the exclusion of contentious issues from the SAARC charter and its unadulterated focus on economic cooperation is justified by the depth of differences existing among certain member states and that enhancement of economic cooperation can still be possible without reference to disputed issues. They may give examples of certain regional groupings, which include politically rival countries. But what is lost sight of in this process of argumentation is the fact that the member countries happen to share some collective values and threat perceptions. Furthermore, the world has undergone gigantic change in last few years. The old period marked by ideological polarization has given way to the policy of realism. From absolute and maximalist positions, the counties are now moving towards more flexible and minimalist stances in their foreign policy objectives. This also applies the countries of the SAARC.

Secondly the SAARC charter denotes that all member countries are represented on the platform on the basis of equality. But in actuality it is not the case. India by virtue of its size, position and economic strength, has been trying to play the role of a big brother whose authority should go unchallenged. It has invariably been trying to browbeat the rest of countries into submission. But it is Pakistan that has refused to be subjugated, while the other South Asian countries rightly nourish grievances against India caused mainly by its hegemonic designs. This Indian attitude violates the principle of equality as enshrined in the SAARC charter thus rendering the organization impotent. If SAARC has to become dynamic organization, it should apply the principle of equality and should not allow any single country to dictate its own terms for engagement.

In the 14th SAARC summit held last year in New Delhi also included the following paragraph in its Declaration: "The Heads of Stat or Government emphasized the need to develop, at an early date, a roadmap for a South Asian Customs Union and a South Asian Economic Union in a planned and phased manner."

In the next article, I would try to explore the areas which need immediate cooperation of the member countries of the South Asian region for greater good.

E-mail: hmq@hmqadri.com