Diplomatic Eye-EP 15

SAARC and its future relevance: Is it in the “ICU”?

Background and Introduction:
South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a regional forum, was launched with seven member states on 8 December, 1985 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In 2005, Afghanistan made a formal request to join SAARC; the same year it applied for admission. SAARC is now made up of eight member countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and nine observer countries). Nepal is the current chair of the SAARC being in the capacity since 26th November 2014. The association has its secretariat established in 1987, headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal.

SAARC Charter aims to improve South Asia’s people’s well-being, promote dignity, and foster social, economic, and cultural development. It encourages shared reliance, trust, understanding, and acceptance, promotes cooperation across various fields, expands partnerships with developing nations, enhances global cooperation, and collaborates with regional and international groups.

The theme of the Eighteenth SAARC Summit, which took place in Kathmandu on November 26 and 27, 2014, was “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity.”  It is a subject of tremendous concern for all of us that I am not sure how much deeper SAARC got into since then.

The Kathmandu Declaration featured the followings: poverty alleviation; conceptualizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the regional level; agriculture and food security; climate change; blue economy; South Asian Economic Union; connectivity; SAARC Development Fund; SAARC TB and HIV/AIDS Center Kathmandu; and energy cooperation. Advancements have been made in the areas of social protection, South Asian University and preventing the trafficking of women and children. The unfortunate thing is that after 2014, SAARC’s momentum has stopped.

On this forefront, I attempt to focus the presentation today on three main concerns.

  1. SAARC’s relevance; 2. Nepal’s role in revitalizing SAARC; and
  2. Members’ roles, particularly those of India and Pakistan, in SAARC’s future;

I have conducted conversations with several experts regarding the aforementioned matters. These experts include Prof. Mohan Lohani, the former Nepali ambassador to Bangladesh who participated in the first SAARC Summit in Bangladesh led by late King Birendra; Pradhumna Bikram Shah, the former Nepali ambassador to Brazil and the former Director at SAARC; Major General (retd) Binoj Basnyat; Dr. Shambhu Ram Simkhada, the former UN permanent representative and former Nepali ambassador to Switzerland; and analyst as well as writer Dev Raj Dahal.

 SAARC’s Current Position, Presence and Its Relevance:
Prof. Mohan Lohani asserts that although SAARC’s 19th summit scheduled to take place in Islamabad in 2016 has been stalled for 7 years, SAARC’s relevance, in his opinion, can’t be questioned as it was launched nearly 4 decades ago after a series of meetings and consultations among member countries. It is unfortunate that SAARC has continued to suffer a setback due to bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan. Now India seems to attach more importance to BIMSTEC than SAARC.  South Asia, it is Professor Lohani’s conviction, needs SAARC and there is no alternative to regional cooperation. Increased conflict is the antithesis to cooperation, according to Prof. Lohani.

Dr. Shambhu Ram Simkhada, the former ambassador to Switzerland and permanent resident to the UN and WTO, claims that SAARC is in the ICU—not the Intensive Care Unit—but rather the almost-Incurable Care Unit. In that regard, Dr. Simkhada stated quite frankly that the way SAARC has operated has not only made it obsolete, but it has also become a “White Elephant,” costing the people in this region their hard-earned tax money with no actual return. Therefore, he said, the member nations have the option to either activate it, make it more relevant, or disband it. That is the present state of SAARC.

Writer Dev Raj Dahal believes that SAARC is still important for proximate nations to work together. Because of the animosity between India and Pakistan, official cooperation is stalled; however, tracks two and three are proceeding without official government intervention, according to him. Dahal has a firm belief that South Asia has a sizable public made up of business, civil society, women, labour, and ecologists, among other cultural groups, who believe that many regional and global issues may be resolved by cooperation. The identity of South Asians, in his words, has already influenced global politics, academia, the job market, and other areas.

In the views of Maj Gen (rtd.) Binoj Basnyat, South Asia has historically been divided into West-South Asia and East-South Asia, with India as the rising power. The Cold War ended with the West bloc favoring West-South and Pakistan, while the East Bloc had India as a power balancer. The upcoming rivalry between China and the US will impact political-security architecture, with China and Pakistan playing a significant role. India will likely balance behavior with the West and Russia. South Asia in Cold War 2.0 is about great power competition and regional power opportunities for effective global engagements.

 Nepal’s contribution to reviving SAARC:
Prof. Lohani states that Nepal as current SAARC chair should continue to approach and persuade SAARC members at the highest level to revitalize this Association for continued peace, prosperity and regional stability.

Writer Dahal believes that Nepal might take the lead to revitalize it in its capacity as SAARC chairperson. Because of its cordial ties with all members, it has greater acceptance in the region and houses the secretariat, too. It is consistent with Nepal’s multilateralism and diversification foreign policy. It can push for informal communications with all leaders before formally approaching the heads of states and governments. Not a single country has left the membership. This suggests that there are still reasons to maintain it. Reviving political will is the only issue.

Maj. General Basnyat warns that Nepal as a small nation will miss the boat if it does not acknowledge the geopolitical shifts and take its own positions and steer its way for national growth with the international flow. Nepal is entangled with its own piling domestic issues than being able to focus on how and when on international diplomacy. So, it is a voice, less heard on the issue of SAARC.

Pradhumna Bikaram Shah, a former ambassador of Nepal to Brazil, said that late King Birendra and Bangadeshi President Ziaur Rahman made significant contributions to the founding of SAARC in December 1985. SAARC has experienced various ups and downs since its formation. It was crucial for the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan, Shah remarked. At the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpaye of India and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan clasped hands at a time when relations between the two countries were worsening. He believes that with Nepal chairing SAARC since 2014, the country bears much more political responsibility.

 Member nations’ role in SAARC’s future:
Prof. Lohani reveals that except India which is not very enthusiastic about SAARC despite the fact that it has not stopped its financial contribution to SAARC budget, all other member states are keen on reviving this Association which has the potential to bring peace, prosperity and stability to the region and its people.

Member states, as said by Dev Raj Dahal, are able to coordinate their sub regional bilateral and regional interests. It goes without saying that in a world of global multipolarity and geopolitical revisit, member nations can lower the costs of non-cooperation by cooperating with each other given that geography, resources, personnel, and civilizational congruence are close by.

Major General Basnyat asserts that SAARC does play an important part in the region but not as much of emphasis for countries in the East-South Asia as they can be part of the sub-regional policies and groupings of BIMSTEC for stability and growth.

When Russia and the US were in South Asia during the Cold War, China and US are in South Asia with India as the Balancer for the later half of the century with Cold War 2.0.

Causes following below par performance of SAARC:
In a Journal article Vadranam and Sahoo (2020) asserted that International organizations’ success or failure is influenced by a wide range of variables, including their composition, goals, location, and member relationships.

There appears to be an issue with each of the aforementioned characteristics when taking the SAARC situation into consideration. There is a wider belief that SAARC was established in reaction to other prosperous regional groups. There are a number of issues facing SAARC, including structural issues, conflicts of interest, member competition, mistrust, political instability, and imbalances in demography, economy and geography. Even though the organization was founded in 1985 and has been around for over three and a half decades, it has not been able to significantly alter the area since then. The aforementioned factors are the reason for SAARC’s dismal performance. Despite having a relatively well-integrated geographic location, the region continues to have very limited and delayed integration.

Dr. Simkhada identifies three key problems with SAARC’s downfall. They are: 1. SAARC’s Charter; 2. SAARC Secretariat; and 3. SAARC as a state centric forum. The SAARC charter itself, which prohibited political and divisive topics from being discussed at the summit, is a problem. Every important topic contains a component of contentious issues. If you don’t deal with them, the regional organization won’t grow and thrive.

According to Dr. Simkhada, The SAARC Secretariat was intended to be a unit of administration. Understanding the development of international relations is essential to comprehending why SAARC is failing. How was the UN degenerating into dysfunction?  “The UN was not a transformative organization for the bureaucrats working there”, says Dr. Simkhada, further adding, “Rather, it was essentially an organization for their safe career because member nations had politicized it.” These two concepts thus involve the over politicization of member states by means of the organization, which is then politicized by viewing it through the limited prism of each particular nation’s interest, according to him.

He added, the UN’s dysfunction was caused by the officials who worked there, not by those who saw it as a transforming mission to pursue as a career. Thus, the dysfunctions of the United Nations gave rise to the entire concept of regionalism. Scholars believed that the concept of common peace, security, prosperity, and dignity—which served as the foundation for the UN and the global order—was increasingly diffused. Perhaps it was overly utopian and far-fetched. Consequently, they reasoned that this concept might be broken down or reduced to the level of regional areas, which would include nations with comparable cultural norms, geopolitical goals, economic development goals, and threat perceptions.

At that point, as opined by Dr. Simkhada, they reasoned that it might begin to function better. They were well aware that the European Economic Area was progressively taking shape within the framework of the European project, having begun as the Coal and Steel Organization. Also, there was more promise in the direction of the European Union. They so believed that the European Economic Area was functioning more effectively than the United Nations, and that the former was dysfunctional. Perhaps they believed that the concept of regionalism would be more feasible. Thus, that is how the concept of regionalism emerged, along with the establishment of the European Union, the African Union, African Cooperation, and Latin American regional cooperation institutions. SAARC emerged as the final group to be mentioned. ASEAN was first. Thus, the realization of transformational ideas is crucial for the member nations.

He proposed the idea that there is a phenomenon known as the “international legitimization of individual national interest,” since individual governments’ foreign policies are based on their national interests. Thus, he said he had been advocating from the start that a stronger secretariat led by a political figure with at least the minimal position of foreign minister—rather than a bureaucrat—would enable the secretary general to more effectively warn and implement the directives issued by the summit. Second, “Go to each member state and tell them that, in order to secure, promote, and protect their national interests within the “larger regional good,” which is beneficial to all, they must gradually shift from viewing things from the perspective of their own limited national interests,” advises Dr. Simkhada.

SAARC was too state centric according to Dr. Simkhada. SAARC had to be more open to Civil Society Interaction so that they would enter helping the SAARC mechanism to develop the idea of regionalism. Later on some efforts were made such as SAARC Chamber of Commerce, SAARC Parliamentarians, SAARC Business Community, SAARC level Civil Society coming together. He would argue that the Secretariat and the Secretary General should be allowed to interact more with the non state actors as well. Dr. Simkhada is in favor of an incrementally reformed and transformative agenda of SAARC.

Some Tangible Progress: SAARC’s regional centers:
SAARC accomplished some progress. With a focus on disaster management, energy, culture, agriculture, and health, SAARC has expanded to five regional centers. They are:  SAARC Agriculture Centre (SAC), Dhaka; SAARC Energy Centre (SEC), Islamabad; SAARC Cultural Centre (SCC), Colombo, Sri Lanka; SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre (STAC), Kathmandu; and SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC), India. Founded in 2010, the South Asian University is headquartered in New Delhi. SAARC has also been a crucial part of the regional identity of South Asia.

 India-Pakistan Confrontation and SAARC’s Future:
Dr. Simkhada expresses his displeasure with the fact that the relationship between SAARC’s two largest members, India and Pakistan, is the reason the organization is stagnating. However, we must recognize that this could be the reason SAARC needs to be followed about. Why do Pakistanis and Indians wish to maintain their confrontational relationship for the long term? Will that be beneficial to them both? Therefore, if they are unable to resolve the issue bilaterally, there must be a multilateral or regional conference where leaders, officials, thinkers, and representatives of other nations convene to share the realization that progress must eventually be made.

How much time do we spend after all? is the sole question. What was the price for our people? How many conflicts later? Following how many fatalities? That is the query. Both concepts bear accountability. Firstly, member states tend to view issues through a limited lens, which kind of inhibits them from embracing a more transformative agenda. Secondly, the bureaucracy, which is pleased to keep getting benefits from the organization without having to do anything or be involved in it. They thereby contribute to some of the resistance.

Ambassador Shah notes that one crucial point to remember is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India hosted the SAARC Webinar, in which all member countries took part virtually, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a laudable action. This noble gesture suggests that the political elite in India is determined to prevent SAARC from degenerating into dysfunction. It is believed that one obstacle to the SAARC’s capacity to function well is the “Ego” of its political leadership, especially that of India and Pakistan. Similarly, the Taliban-led government that currently rules Afghanistan is also seen to be a factor in the dysfunction of SAARC. It is imperative that member states of SAARC acknowledge the value of working together to address issues such as climate change, pandemics, natural disasters, and other issues.

Ambassador Shah points out that since SAARC’s founding, there haven’t been any significant wars between India and Pakistan. In order to reduce their disparities, regional leaders should begin to meet and cooperate through SAARC. He questions why, despite their collaboration with the Sanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), India and Pakistan are unwilling to welcome each other in SAARC.

I would argue that the hopes for peace and prosperity among the people of South Asia have been undermined by the current administration of the SAARC Charter. Not only is it imperative that the Charter be amended, but it is becoming too late to start the process.

As reported by Voice of America on December 10, the Taliban Foreign Ministry declared on December 1 that Asadullah Bilal Karimi, the Taliban Ambassador, had submitted his credentials to Hong Lei, the director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s protocol department. The following week, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declared that “Afghanistan should not be excluded from the international community.”

Clearly, the Maoists, who were formerly labelled terrorists by the international community, including India, are in power in Nepal as part of a coalition government. The current SAARC Chairman, Prime Minister Prachanda, therefore, ought to initiate diplomatic measures to make accommodations for Afghanistan.

How long will SAARC be put in the priciest ventilator if the conciliatory approach doesn’t serve as a stimulus for the organization’s revitalization and longevity? Only time will tell.