Make a reality of SAARC
By K. Godage
The 15th SAARC Summit is taking on the proportions of an MGM production. Let us all hope that President Rajapaksa and his advisors undertake a reality check and use this opportunity for him to go down in history as the SAARC Chairman who transformed the organisation from a pious talk shop that does not comply with conventions and agreements, creating an organisation which has meaning for the people of South Asia, as was conceived at its inception.
It was way back in 1980 that the idea of regional cooperation between the countries of South Asia was conceived. Thereafter, in 1981, consultations were held in Colombo by the foreign secretaries of the seven countries. This meeting was followed by the first meeting of foreign ministers, who met in Delhi in 1983 and adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
They also launched the Integrated Programme of Action, which covered five areas for cooperation. The five areas for cooperation they agreed upon were agriculture, health, meteorology, telecommunications and rural development. The first meeting at heads of state level was held in December 1985.
It was at this summit that the SAARC Charter was formally adopted. Twenty-two years have elapsed since then and 14 times, the heads of state have met and it is perhaps pertinent to even briefly examine what has been achieved in terms of the objectives the leaders set for themselves and for SAARC.
The principal objectives they set for themselves and for SAARC were as follows:
1. To promote economic, social and cultural development of our peoples and to improve the quality of their lives.
2. To promote collaboration in economic, social, cultural technical and scientific fields.
3. To promote mutual trust and understanding among the peoples of South Asia.
4. To promote collaboration among themselves in international forums in matters of common interest.
5. To promote and strengthen collective self reliance among the countries of South Asia.
It had also been decided that all SAARC decisions be arrived at by consensus and, most important of all, that bilateral and contentious issues would be excluded from the deliberations of SAARC.
The institutional set-up established (no doubt the work of the foreign secretaries) could not have been bettered. It was comprehensive in terms of achieving the goals the leaders had set for our countries. They were as follows:
The highest authority of the association would rest with the heads of state, as with ASEAN and the EU. There was to be a Council of Ministers who would be responsible for the formulation of policies, reviewing progress and deciding on new areas of progress. The Council was expected to meet twice a year.
The next important institution was to be the Standing Committee, comprising foreign secretaries of the member states. Their responsibility was to monitor and coordinate programmes. It was to meet as often as was deemed necessary and to report to the Council of Ministers.
Seven Technical Committees were also established in terms of the work involved with regard to the ‘Integrated Programme of Action,’ which was launched at the first meeting of the foreign ministers, which was held in Delhi in 1983. It was also decided to establish the following Regional Centres, with each such centre to be managed by a Governing Board;
1. Regional Agricultural Information Centre
2. SAARC Documentation Centre
3. SAARC Human Resources Development Centre
4. SAARC Tuberculosis Prevention Centre
5. SAARCC Meteorological Research Centre
All important committee
An all important committee to institutionalise regional economic cooperation was established. This Committee on Economic Cooperation was to comprise of the secretaries of commerce and trade of the member states. The task of this Committee was to strengthen and enhance inter-governmental cooperation in the fields of trade and economic relations.
From this Committee emerged the SAARC Preferential Trade initiative, or the SAPTA. The framework agreement was signed at the Dhaka Summit and came into operation in 1983. I am reliably informed that hardly any worthwhile progress has been made due to the huge differences in the levels of economic and industrial development of the member states.
Despite the lack of progress in SAPTA it was decided at the 10th summit in Colombo in 1998 to set up a committee to draft a comprehensive treaty to create a free trade area within the region. Quite ambitious indeed!
It has also been proposed by the Standing Committee to adopt an Agreement on the Promotion and Protection of Investment in the region, a most laudable initiative to promote confidence, which is vital if foreign direct investment of any significant magnitude is to take place.
A number of other similar valuable initiatives we also taken, such as the need to support the enhancement of the financial systems of SAARC countries through building institutional capacity and the need to establish a network of researchers on global, financial and economic issues and developments, to help analyse and assist member states of SAARC to face global financial and economic developments.
If this network is indeed functioning, it should prove a boon to the member states. That would be one of the few positive achievements of SAARC. The only other two initiatives worthy of mention to my mind are the Social Charter and the Poverty Alleviation project.
It had been decided at the 10th Summit held in Colombo to establish a ‘Social Charter’ for the SAARC countries to accelerate social progress and promote active collaboration among member states. The securing of the rights of women and children has been the foremost consideration and has received the highest priority.
Much useful work appears to have been done by Technical Committee on ‘Women in Development.’ The Committee has been concerned with the trafficking of women and children within and between countries and member countries have signed a Regional Convention on Combating the Crime of Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution when they met at Kathmandu in January 2002, but as to whether domestic legislation has been enacted by all member states in line with this Convention is not known.
Though the development and well-being of children within our countries has been considered a priority area for SAARC and has been on the agenda at a number of ministerial meetings and an MoU has been signed with UNICEF, it is doubtful as to whether our countries have been implementing the decision of the ministers or acting in terms of the MoU.
Elimination of poverty
The other important SAARC initiative was one championed by President Premadasa, at the sixth SAARC Summit in Colombo in 1991, namely the elimination of poverty. It had been decided to establish an independent South Asia Commission on Poverty Alleviation.
The Summits that followed welcomed the initiative and expressed their commitment to eradicate poverty in South Asia through an agenda of action which would include a strategy for social mobilisation, a policy of decentralised agricultural development, village awakening (Gam Udawa), small-scale labour intensive industrialisation and last but not least, human development.
After the passing away of President Premadasa, it appeared that only lip service was being paid to the programme by member states; the Poverty Alleviation programme is now apparently being implemented by the UNDP. Any national poverty alleviation programmes don’t appear to be in operation.
SAARC has also a number of agreements which our countries have entered into but as to whether these agreements have had impact on the peoples of our countries is another matter; among them is the Food Security Reserve.
It was decided to establish the Food Security Reserve in 1987 and agreements were signed but I doubt whether it is in existence today. The Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism was signed in 1987 and has been ratified by all member states but as to whether the member states are abiding by its commitments is another matter.
Meanwhile, I understand that a ‘Comprehensive Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism’ is being contemplated! There is also a Convention on Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and the Conventions referred to earlier, relating to women and children. All this is, no doubt, an impressive record on paper but as to whether these Conventions are being implemented is another matter.
The question today is whether SAARC is a mere talk shop which has provided officials, ministers and heads of state an opportunity to gather every year and exchange pleasantries. After 22 and 14 Summits, I do believe the peoples of our countries have a right to demand an audit and take remedial action to make the regional association meaningful to the people.
It has been pointed out by no less a person than our present President that the asymmetry within SAARC has not been helpful. President Rajapaksa’s description of South Asia was as follows: “A region of contrasts with significant disparities in gross domestic product, income levels, national resources and population.”
Yes, India’s towering presence is seen by some countries as a threat, but then as Professor G.L. Peiris recently stated, India can do nothing about its size, resources and population. He stated that this should be seen more as an opportunity than a threat.
Most unfortunately, this threat perception exists in the minds of many as would be seen from recent statements by the JVP, which has accused India of seeking to make Lanka a state of India. There is nothing that can be done about that, other than perhaps for India to include the Gujral Doctrine in its constitution.
The Gujral Doctrine
For the sake of record, permit me to set out the five cardinal principles of the Gujral Doctrine. In the words of Gujral himself, “India does not seek reciprocity but gives all that it can in good faith and trust. Second, no South Asian country should allow the use of its territory against the interest of a fellow country in the region. Third, that all of us in South Asia must respect each others’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. And finally, we should settle all disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations.”
These were the five principles of the Gujral Doctrine. As he himself stated, “These five principles, if scrupulously adhered to, are bound to achieve a fundamental recasting of the regional relationships, including, I venture to state, a radical change in the tormented relationship between India and Pakistan, in a friendly and cooperative mould.”
Most unfortunately for the countries of South Asia, this doctrine was abandoned after Gujral left office. I venture to state that had the Gujral principles been followed by India, SAARC would have today been more than a reality, for India would then never have been perceived as a threat, but as an opportunity.
Considering SAARC’s tremendous potential, India, which is bigger in every respect than the rest of us put together, has indeed a role and a responsibility to move SAARC forward.
From the record set out above, it would be seen that though SAARC has an impressive record of ‘achievements’ on paper, it has had little impact on the people of South Asian countries, unlike ASEAN or the EU.
Lack of progress
The lack of any serious commitment to cooperate, even on the vital issue of terrorism, despite the much touted SAARC Convention on Terrorism, arms smuggling, the narcotics trade, human smuggling, and money laundering is evidence of a lack of real progress.
My colleague Ambassador Rodrigo has in a speech recently referred to the fact that South Asia as a region cannot develop in isolation, particularly in a globalised world. As a regional grouping, we need not only to endeavour to reach common positions on global issues commonly affecting us, but also to reach out and open up to the rest of Asia and the world beyond.
Therefore, inviting countries such as Japan, China, the US and the EU as Observers is indeed a step in the right direction. Let us hope that at least these ‘Observer Countries’ would be able to assist us to make a reality of regional cooperation and make a success of SAARC.