Saarc needs to find ways to re­solve rifts within

The Asian Age - - Edit - A. G. Noorani

It is not the Soviet Union, or in­deed any other big power, who need the UN for their pro­tec­tion; it is all the oth­ers. In this sense, the or­gan­i­sa­tion is first of all their or­gan­i­sa­tion”, said dis­tin­guished UN Sec­re­tary- Gen­eral Dag Ham­marskjöld in 1961. These words can be aptly ap­plied to the South Asian As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion. It has be­come mori­bund thanks largely to In­dia’s wil­ful ob­struc­tion, as part of its pol­icy of con­fronta­tion to­wards Pak­istan, in re­fus­ing to have the next Saarc sum­mit held in Pak­istan. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Nepal has in­sis­tently, re­peat­edly de­manded that the sum­mit be held. Sri Lanka has ex­pressed sim­i­lar views, al­beit less openly.

In­dia flouts the Saarc Char­ter, re­flect­ing a pro­found mis­con­cep­tion of the ob­ject of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, in­dif­fer­ence to its po­ten­tial­i­ties, and con­tempt for in­sti­tu­tional co­op­er­a­tion of the re­gions’ states — which com­prise one- fifth of hu­man­ity.

The char­ter pro­vides a clue to the res­o­lu­tion of a stand­off and expresses re­course if there is a breach of its pact. Con­ceived by Bangladesh’s then Pres­i­dent Hus­sain Muham­mad Er­shad, the idea took time to win ac­cep­tance. At long last the char­ter was signed in Dhaka on De­cem­ber 8, 1985, by Pres­i­dent Er­shad, the King of Bhutan, the Prime Min­is­ter of In­dia, the Pres­i­dent of the Mal­dives, the King of Nepal and the Pres­i­dent of Pak­istan.

“In­creased co­op­er­a­tion, con­tacts and ex­changes among the coun­tries of the re­gion will con­trib­ute to the pro­mo­tion of friend­ship and un­der­stand­ing among their peo­ples,” they recog­nised. Saarc was es­tab­lished to pro­mote that co­op­er­a­tion “within an in­sti­tu­tion frame­work”.

Ar­ti­cle II is highly sig­nif­i­cant. “Such co­op­er­a­tion shall not be a sub­sti­tute for bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion but shall com­ple­ment them.” Did the mem­bers fear in 1985 that Saarc might ab­sorb their in­ter­ac­tions en­tirely and ex­clu­sively? What has hap­pened is the very re­verse. It is bi­lat­eral dif­fer­ences that have put Saarc to sleep.

Ar­ti­cle III man­dates: “The heads of state or gov­ern­ment shall meet once a year or more of­ten as and when con­sid­ered nec­es­sary by the mem­ber states.” The an­nual sum­mit is manda­tory (“shall”). It is not sub­ject to any mem­ber’s veto. The spe­cial meet­ing re­quires the con­sent of all (“con­sid­ered nec­es­sary”). It is this spe­cial ses­sion alone which is sub­ject to veto. The same rule ap­plies to the coun­cil of min­is­ters ( Ar­ti­cle IV). Its bian­nual meet­ing is not sub­ject to a veto by any state; but its “ex­tra­or­di­nary ses­sion” re­quires “agree­ment among the mem­ber states”. The stand­ing com­mit­tee com­pris­ing for­eign sec­re­taries “shall meet as of­ten as deemed nec­es­sary” — by all.

The con­trast be­tween the man­date of the an­nual sum­mit and dis­cre­tion as to other meet­ings is stark. It can­not be ig­nored with­out vi­o­lat­ing the char­ter which brings us to a clinch­ing pro­vi­sion: It is in para­graph 2 of Ar­ti­cle X, the very last pro­vi­sion of the char­ter to sig­nify its over­rid­ing force and char­ac­ter: “Bi­lat­eral and con­tentious is­sues shall be ex­cluded from the de­lib­er­a­tions.” It is a per­ver­sion of the pro­vi­sion to make prior so­lu­tion of “bi­lat­eral and con­tentious is­sues” a pre­con­di­tion to the hold­ing of the an­nual Saarc sum­mit. That vi­o­lates the char­ter and ren­ders the or­gan­i­sa­tion non est.

Ter­ror­ism does not and can­not fall out­side Saarc’s scope. In Novem­ber 1987, its for­eign min­is­ters con­cluded a com­pre­hen­sive Re­gional Con­ven­tion on Sup­pres­sion of Ter­ror­ism. Its breach by a mem­ber can be brought to Saarc’s no­tice whether at the sum­mit or the coun­cil of min­is­ters. The de­bate should stop short of be­ing highly “con­tentious”, but the of­fended state will have voiced its griev­ance for all the world to hear.

Such was the progress ini­tially that a cou­ple of states urged that the curbs be lifted. In 1987, In­dian diplo­mat Eric Gon­salves said, “It would be un­wise to per­ma­nently rule out these is­sues from Saarc.” At the eighth Saarc sum­mit in New Delhi, Pres­i­dent Fa­rooq Leghari said, “Ex­pe­ri­ence of other re­gional group­ings like the EEC and Asean shows that progress was pos­si­ble only af­ter the po­lit­i­cal is­sues had been mean­ing­fully ad­dressed. There is no rea­son why Saarc should lag be­hind. The mem­ber states of Saarc should be able to use the plat­form of this as­so­ci­a­tion in or­der to col­lec­tively help nar­row the po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween mem­bers. I am quite aware that our char­ter pre­cludes dis­cus­sion of con­tentious po­lit­i­cal is­sues in our meet­ings.”

That is a dis­tant prospect. The im­me­di­ate task is to bring Saarc to life. From 1985 to 2001, at least five sum­mits were skipped. This must end. Mem­bers do not skip Com­mon­wealth sum­mits. Is Saarc ex­pend­able? Af­ter the fifth sum­mit, Prime Min­is­ter Chan­dra Shekhar in­formed Par­lia­ment that he had met Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif there and had voiced con­cern at what he al­leged was “sup­port from across the bor­der” to mil­i­tancy in Pun­jab and Kash­mir.

By ar­range­ment with Dawn

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