Addu Summit Failed to Achieve Anything
The Seventeenth SAARC Summit was held on November 10 and 11 in Maldives with a pledge to promote regional trade and facilitate communications and travel among the member countries. Most of us could have predicted this outcome a year in advance. Nevertheless, our prime minister probably must have been looking forward to it for a long time as both he and the president love foreign trips, accompanied by a big entourage.
The outcome of the Addu Summit should not surprise us as nothing substantial has happened in the past summits as well. The most noteworthy event in most of the SAARC Summits has been the meeting of the Indian and Pakistani heads of government and this one was no exception.
The venue of the annual summit rotates amongst the member countries, i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Summit this year rotated amongst nine exotic islands within the Maldives.
The Maldivian President declared “Building Bridges” – both in terms of physical connectivity and figurative political dialogue – as the theme for the Summit. The Maldivians perhaps realizing the futility of these annual meetings tried to find a focus for the Summit.
Like ASEAN, SAARC was formed as a regional organization to promote economic, technological, social and cultural development through cooperation and integration efforts. The problem is that most of the member states are so embroiled in border disputes that cooperation of any kind, especially economic, is the last thing that comes to their mind.
It is about time that the SAARC members and its Secretariat realize the failure of the organization in ever resolving any major disputes and undertake active steps to build bridges. Intellectuals of the member states should identify the problems besetting bilateral relations between the members and the Secretariat should propose a strategy to help remove the obstacles.
Ignoring this aspect of the lack of progress is not going to help. Indian leaders keep reiterating that one cannot choose one’s neighbors but seldom show any magnanimity in resolving India’s disputes with its neighbors. What to talk of showing any flexibility over the issue of Kashmir, it only recently agreed to solve the problem of the enclaves situated at its border with Bangladesh. This issue of enclaves was extremely weird to say the least as there were pockets of land like islands that were located inside the territory of the other state; and inhabited by stateless people. India failed to solve the problem until recently when its Prime Minister visited Dhaka. The same goes with its issue of water distribution with Bangladesh and Pakistan. It has an economic stranglehold around Nepal and reacts if it tries to improve the economic ties with China or Pakistan.
The idea of SAARC cannot flourish in such an environment. The organization was formed in 1985 and it is so far limited to exchanges of a few videos amongst the state-owned television corporations. Exchanges of delegations serve more like tourist trips for the concerned individuals than anything else and cultural exchange programs take place once in a new moon. This is not how regional cooperation can be achieved.
Pakistan can take a step forward towards achieving peace in the SAARC region by giving India the Most Favored Nation status, which is a long over-due step. It is not going to wreak havoc in the country’s economy but in fact may benefit the consumers in both India and Pakistan.
It is high time that South Asian policy-makers go beyond symbolism and take practical steps to help the region that remains one of the poorest in the world. The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court and a member of the Washington, DC Bar. He has been writing for various publications for more than 20 years and has authored several books.
By Anees Jillani