Conflict Resolution in SAARC
The Charter of SAARC is a major impediment to the resolution of conflicts among its members as it prohibits the discussion of contentious bilateral issues in its meetings and official programs.
The 18th SAARC Summit will have to deal with numerous challenges and critical issues, ranging from the dismal state of regional cooperation to the looming environmental threats to the unresolved inter and intra-state conflicts and the human security predicament. The last SAARC Summit held in Male in November 2011 referred to the challenges of good governance and building bridges in various potential areas of cooperation but, like all previous summits, it failed to make a qualitative breakthrough in ensuring connectivity and intraregional trade.
In view of past performance, one cannot have high hopes from the 18th SAARC Summit. Certainly, some of the biggest challenges faced by South Asia today are unabated violence, failure of the rule of law and absence of conflict management and resolution mechanisms. The rise of extremism, intolerance, radicalization and terrorism in many South Asian countries is the result of economic, political, social, cultural and religious conflicts. In addition to the longstanding inter-state conflicts between India and Pakistan – primarily on the issues of Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek and the sharing of water resources – the conflicts at the local level are also a source of insecurity and violence.
As far as intra-state conflicts are concerned – such as the Maoist/ Naxalite movements in India, ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Pakistan, government-opposition schisms in Bangladesh and the political standoff between the government and the opposition parties in Nepal – the state authorities and civil societies of the countries concerned need to play their role in the peaceful resolution of such conflicts.
In Sri Lanka, a three decades long violent Tamil-Sinhala conflict reached a logical conclusion in 2009 when the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) was militarily defeated. The Sri Lankan case study in the realms of conflict resolution is quite interesting. It showed that when the use of soft power and the policy of stick and carrot failed to yield positive results, the use of hard power by the Sri Lankan government ended one phase of the conflict with the military defeat of the LTTE. However, it failed to address the root causes of
But, it is the inter-state conflicts in South Asia which need serious consideration, as the failure to resolve them can lead to the outbreak of armed conflicts between neighbors, causing colossal physical and material destruction. Undoubtedly, the option of Track-I, Track-II and Track-III diplomacy to further the process of dialogue between India and Pakistan is essential to prevent hostilities and tensions along their borders. But more important is the exercise of political will and a determination on the part of the ruling elites of the two countries not to remain hostage to the past and instead take concrete steps for a purposeful and meaningful resolution of all lingering issues.
SAARC’s predicament is that there is no mechanism within its institutional framework which can play a viable role in conflict resolution because the charter of SAARC prohibits the discussion of contentious bilateral issues in its meetings and official programs such as the meetings of SAARC foreign secretaries, foreign ministers and SAARC summits. Article X of the Charter of SAARC is a major impediment to the resolution of conflicts among its members.
When SAARC was launched as a regional organization in 1985, its seven member states decided that it would be imprudent to discuss the bilateral conflicts in the formative phase of the organization. The SAARC leaders also agreed that their energies should be utilized in promoting regional cooperation at the economic level and that they should not get bogged down in contentious issues. But the founders of SAARC had undermined the basic fact that the process of regional cooperation cannot take off unless there exists an understanding either to freeze the conflicts or seek their fair and just resolution. In the case of South Asia, there hasn’t been any effort either to freeze the conflicts or to seek their peaceful resolution. As a result, such conflicts impede regional cooperation.
When the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was launched in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, no summit was held for the first ten years because the member states had focused their energies on formulating a roadmap for purposeful regional cooperation instead of holding meetings and summits. By 1977, the ASEAN members had done enough homework to institutionalize the process of cooperation by freezing their bilateral conflicts, particularly between Indonesia and Malaysia. Later, Brunei became a member of ASEAN followed by Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. SAARC should have learned lessons from ASEAN where the member states succeeded in moving forward to attain the goal of regional cooperation despite political differences.
Since the two giants of the region – India and Pakistan – make up around two-thirds of South Asia, it is argued that SAARC cannot render positive results unless both countries sort out their differences. To a large extent, New Delhi’s approach visà-vis conflicts with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, is based on a two-pronged strategy. The first is to reject third-party mediation and stress on pursuing a bilateral approach to deal with contentious issues. India has followed this strategy quite effectively with Pakistan, taking advantage of the 1972 Simla Pact which clearly stated that all outstanding disputes between India and Pakistan, including the Jammu & Kashmir issue, shall be resolved peacefully and bilaterally.
The second strategy is to discourage Pakistan’s efforts to raise contentious issues on bilateral forums. India has consistently followed this approach during the composite dialogue. When Pakistan raises the Kashmir dispute with India under the framework of composite dialogue, India refuses to give any serious consideration to the matter. New Delhi is unable to understand a basic point that unless it has peace with its neighbors, its goals and objectives to emerge as an Asian or a world power may never materialize.
One way to empower SAARC is to amend its Charter. Instead of escaping from the reality of conflicts and prohibiting their discussion under its ambit, SAARC needs to delete Article X from its Charter. This requires to be done because after over 30 years of its formation, the member states are now capable of discussing issues which are directly responsible for derailing the process of regional cooperation.
The non-serious approach of SAARC on various important issues is also deplorable. For instance, Afghanistan joined SAARC several years ago as its eighth member. However, the Charter of SAARC mentions only seven members and is not updated by including Afghanistan as its member.
In the forthcoming SAARC summit, the member states must agree on scrapping Section Two of Article X of the SAARC Charter which excludes bilateral and contentious issues from the deliberation of SAARC. This may not resolve bilateral conflicts but SAARC members can certainly discuss the modalities to diffuse a crisis emanating from the escalation of a particular conflict. That is one plausible way to discuss controversial issues instead of escaping from them.