[op-ed snap] Why SAARC is still relevant

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Mains Paper 2: IR|  Important International institutions, agencies and fora- their structure, mandate..

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Basics aspects of SAARC

Mains level: The newscard discusses the relevance and issues with respect to SAARC, in a brief manner.


Context

  • Imran Khan earned a lot of popular support in Pakistan by opening up the Kartarpur Sahib gurudwara to Sikh yatris from across the border with India. He talked of “peace and trade” and was hailed by the man in the street.
  • In fact, Prime Minister Khan was so sure of “real” public support that he began toying with the idea of mid-term polls to bag a two-thirds majority in parliament that would enable him to change the laws which obstruct his political agenda.

Background

  1. The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has come under serious scrutiny in the last few years. Even after three decades of its existence, SAARC’s performance has been less than satisfactory, and its role in strengthening regional cooperation is being questioned.
  2. SAARC faced setback after the 19th summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan in 2016 was suspended for an indefinite period, as member countries declined to participate, pointing to what they said was the absence of a conducive regional environment.
  3. Though SAARC has established itself as a regional forum, it has failed to attain its objectives. Numerous agreements have been signed and institutional mechanisms established under SAARC, but they have not been adequately implemented.
  4. The South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) is often highlighted as a prominent outcome of SAARC, but that, too, is yet to be implemented. Despite SAFTA coming into effect as early as 2006, the intra-regional trade continues to be at a meagre five percent.

Lack of trust among the member countries

  • In the many failures of SAARC, lack of trust among the member countries has been the most significant factor between India and Pakistan. In recent times, Pakistan’s non-cooperation has stalled some major initiatives under SAARC.
  • For example, despite India’s keen interest in cooperating and strengthening intra-regional connectivity by backing the SAARC–MVA during the 18th summit of SAARC, the agreement was stalled following Pakistan’s reluctance.
  • Similarly, the SAARC satellite project that India proposed was abandoned following objection from Pakistan in 2016.

Security cooperation

  • SAARC has also faced obstacles in the area of security cooperation. A major hindrance in this regard has been the lack of consensus on threat perceptions, since member countries disagree on the idea of threats.
  • For instance, while cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a major concern for India, Pakistan has failed to address these concerns.

Other significant reasons for SAARC’s failures include the following:

  1. The asymmetry between India and other member countries in terms of geography, economy, military strength and influence in the global arena make the smaller countries apprehensive. They perceive India as “Big Brother” and fear that it might use the SAARC to pursue hegemony in the region. The smaller neighbouring countries, therefore, have been reluctant to implement various agreements under SAARC.
  2. SAARC does not have any arrangement for resolving disputes or mediating conflicts. Disputes among the member countries often hamper consensus building, thus slowing down the decision-making process. SAARC’s inability in this regard has been detrimental to its growth.
  3. Given SAARC’s failures, member countries have turned to bilateralism, which in turn has adversely affected the organisation. Bilateralism is an easier option since it calls for dealings between only two countries, whereas SAARC—at a regional level—requires one country to deal with seven countries.
  4. Thus, bilateralism decreases the countries’ dependence on SAARC to achieve their objectives, making them less interested in pursuing initiatives at a regional level.
  5. SAARC faces a shortage of resources, and countries have been reluctant to increase their contributions.
  6. Lack of connectivity between different SAARC countries is another reason for the lackluster performance of SAARC so far. Trade and other relations between India and Afghanistan are hampered by the fact that they don’t share any border and connectivity through Pakistan, and is dependent upon good relations between India and Pakistan.

Why SAARC is still relevant

  1. Although it has not met the expectations it has generated, but it gives opportunities for the leaders as well as the operating level officials to interact regularly and discuss issues of mutual concern is reason enough for SAARC to remain relevant.
  2. The problems faced by the SAARC countries are similar and distinct from other regions. The solutions, therefore, are best found with mutual cooperation in the region. For this reason itself SAARC continues to be relevant.
  3. There is no denying the fact that growth in trade and commerce within the region is an extremely important step in this direction. Agreements for this purpose that have been signed earlier do exist. What is required is to operationalise these. If for whatever reasons some countries are not in a position to do so, it will be better for those countries that can do so to move forward.

Way forward

  1. What is also required is for SAARC to concentrate its activities in core identified areas and not lose its direction by getting involved in too many activities. Since India is literally the pivot around which SAARC revolves, the major responsibility for making SAARC a success is upon India. It, therefore, needs to show willingness and undertake asymmetric responsibilities where required.
  2. To give momentum to this process, one or two projects at the sub-regional level could be identified and vigorously implemented within a specific time frame. These projects, if successful, can show the benefits of mutual cooperation and could persuade the doubting Thomas’s to join in.
  3. Each SAARC country also has to realize that while the political situation in individual countries may keep on changing, the economic situation does not change so rapidly and, as it exists, requires really serious efforts for improvement.
  4. At the end of the day, it is the economy which matters for the impoverished people of the region. SAARC can and should be the instrument for leaders of the region to improve the economic situation of the people of the region, even if to begin with, it is in baby steps.
  5. To make SAARC more effective, the organisation must be reformed and member countries must reach a consensus regarding the changes required. However, considering the differences that exist among the members, particularly between India and Pakistan, such a consensus will be difficult to reach. Until the member countries resolve their issues, the future of SAARC remains uncertain.

Back2Basics

What Is SAARC & SAARC Countries?

  1. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union in South Asia.  Its member states include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  SAARC was founded in Dhaka in 1985.
  2. Its secretariat is based in Kathmandu.
  3. The organization promotes the development of economic and regional integration.
  4. It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006.
  5. SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nation as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities.

Observers Of SAARC: – 

States with observer status include Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius Myanmar, South Korea and the United States.

Objectives Of SAARC:-

The objectives shall be:

  1. To promote the welfare of the peoples of SOUTH ASIA and to improve their quality of life.
  2. To accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural developmentin the region.
  3. Toprovide all individuals with the opportunity to live in dignity and to realise their full potentials.
  4. To promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of SOUTH ASIA
  5. To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another are problems.
  6. To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields.
  7. To strengthen cooperationwith other developing countries.
  8. To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interests.
  9. To cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.

SAARC Law Conference

  • It was established in Sri Lanka in 1991.
  • Since then conference has provided a platform for legal professionals from South Asian region to meet and discuss issues of mutual interests pertaining to justice, legal reforms, good governance and enforcement over a span of 25 years.
  • 14th Conference held in Colombo, SL in October 2017

With inputs from:  ORF

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Pakistan
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