By Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
(This is a comprehensive report of the 15 SAARC Summit in Colombo and it throws some light on the issues and challenges facing the forum and offers some suggestions to improve the functioning of the SAARC.)
Eight SAARC nations, namely Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, India and Maldives met in Colombo on 2-3 August essentially to discuss issues including trade imbalance, poverty, food crisis, price-rise, climate change and terrorism. Rising tensions in Kashmir, deadly bombs blistering through Indian cities with Indian media-cum-intelligence speculation that Muslim “militants” are behind the series of blasts, issues of nuclear power and prestige, these, rather than poverty alleviation of a third of the world’s population who call this region their home, will most likely dominate the talks even as the summit winds down today. Its non cooperation is best reflected by the fact that intra-regional trade of SAARC is still said to be only approximately 5.5% of the total trade of the member countries. In negotiations it is more a focus on the differences rather than the similarities that hold sway.
While discussing “terrorism” the leaders always skip the major component of terrorism, the state terrorism. Unfortunately, the issue of so-called “terrorism” has been haunting the SAARC, rather than any joint economic enterprises. India, the major player in the region with its new economic muscle got out of the public sector sales, has been using the SAARC to strengthen its hold over Kashmir and to warn the freedom seeking Kashmiris and hence “terrorism” has remained the focus of its addresses. That seems to be the crux of the weakening scenario in the South Asian region. Invariably acts of terrorism take place on thieve of international summits and SAARC is no exception. That India remains focused on anti-Pakistanism and anti-Kashmiris is not news for the world. It is because India occupies its neighbor Kashmir that terrorism is sustained and promoted by New Delhi to gain sympathy form the US-led West. India also is always talking about combating the menace of “terrorism” but the facts are not unknown to SAARC.
Terrorism in Kashmir is the creation of New Delhi strategists to suppress the freedom movement and secret grave-yards characterize Indian democracy and neo-Gandhian approach to settling crises. New Delhi believes it should control the Kashmiris seeking their sovereignty back from occupier India with an iron hand which India has successfully done so far. India slams Pakistan as a routine matter to evade any serious business in SAARC.
Violence has always been on the top of the agenda of SAARC summits. A declaration was made in 1987 at the Kathmandu summit due to the increase in sectarian violence in Sri Lanka and the rise of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.
The myriad problems of SAARC countries cannot be solved through a one-off resolution on terrorism. Security, prosperity and economic integration can only be achieved by the strength of equality, unity, fraternity and soft borders. Due to these opposing forces, Saarc has failed to achieve its objectives of integrating the region as an economic, social, cultural and scientific entity. This is highly evident when it comes to the free movement of peoples across the region. There are visa restrictions, mostly for visitors traveling from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh to India.
Challenges for SAARC
A productive and fruitful 15th SAARC summit was concluded at the BMICH in Colombo with high focus laid on taking collective action to confront Food and Energy Hikes in the region as well as the scourge of terrorism. Food and energy security, terrorism, climate change, water, poverty alleviation get top billing. SAARC has to concentrate on food security, climate conditioning and diseases and also focus on improving the socioeconomic condition of 1.5 billion people in the region. Apart from food, fuel and trade issues, critical issue of climate change, water resources, transport, social issues, terrorism, women empowerment and cooperation in science and technology dominated the summit talks.
The Colombo Declaration on the basis of ‘Partnership for Growth for Our People’ was also considered and adopted. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who emphasized on the need for a common SAARC currency, underscored the prime importance of economic and commercial cooperation in the region. Outlining the global ramifications of reduced food availability in turn leading to high prices, and increasing energy costs, if not addressed to, he said, would reverse the progress and the development achieved by the respective governments. He stressed for developing alternative and renewable sources of energy including hydro-power, solar, wind and bio, and making the necessary reforms in increasing energy efficiency, transferring technology and in energy trading, asides conserving conventional sources of energy. Rajapaksa stressed the importance of implementing the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in both letter and in spirit, accompanied by the resolution of the non-tariff barriers within the region, which result in the dilution of the benefits derived. The Energy Ministers of the SAARC countries are due to meet in Colombo next year to pursue them further.
The Host Rajapaksa welcomed the Observers namely the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mauritius, the United States of America, Australia, Myanmar and the EU and appreciated their participation in the Summit. They approved the guidelines for cooperation and looked forward to working with them in the common pursuit of the partnership for growth for our people. They will make every possible effort to make SAARC function effectively and efficiently for the overall benefit of the region.
All leaders spoke at the summit calling for concerted efforts by all members to bring about changes in the region, while discussing the issues facing each country, but very little was said about clear ways to achieve the collective effort. India and Afghanistan dwelt upon “terrorism” as if SAACK is meant only to kill the Muslims and other who seek equality and genuine rights.
Bangladesh Foreign Adviser Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhruy remarked that the recent price-hike of food globally has reminded us of urgent need to address the situation comprehensively. The food crisis has affected the poorest segment of the society. Food security would constitute an important area of our collective endeavors. He said that SAARC Food Bank need to be made operational immediately to give a human face to the organization’s work. Bangladesh seeks another Green Revolution based on technology and innovative techniques.
Tensions between Pakistan and India – SAARC’s biggest and most powerful members and Sri Lanka‘s two largest neighbors- have also been exacerbated by continued hostilities in the disputed border area of Kashmir. India has accused Pakistan of violating a ceasefire accord in Kashmir, and troops from both sides traded gunfire recently, India was keen to keep terrorism on the top of the agenda. If the Kabul bomb that ripped through the Indian Embassy prompted Indian National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan to immediately point fingers at Pakistan’s Spy Agency ISI, calling it an ‘Agency of Evil that must be destroyed,’ India’s covert Research and Analysis Wing has been viewed with no less animosity in many parts of the region. Pakistan did not want to make Sri Lanka a playground for regional issues. India, which also supplies arms, reacts with anger over Pakistan‘s continuous military support for Sri Lanka‘s war.
India derives, rather extracts, a lot of sadistic pleasure in blaming Pakistan and Kashmir for its own makings and for nothing. Indian occupation of Jammu Kashmir is the base cause for the regional tensions. The SAARC region has one of the highest number of people living under the poverty line. And India has made SAARC one of the weakest forums in the world. One is entitled to suspect that it is the very nature of this region’s people and its selfish leaders that often make it so.
Illegal occupation of Kashmir by India and the mistrust between India and Pakistan, the two strongest members, have seriously harmed the efficacy and effectiveness of SAARC as a well-knit economic organization. India should consider surrendering sovereignty back to the struggling and dying Kashmiris and that Kashmir should join SAARC as a full member.
2. Poverty reduction
The SAARC was established with the aim of promoting the welfare of the people of the region through accelerated economic growth, social progress and cultural development. It has been pursuing collaboration in the area of agriculture and rural development, health and population activities, women, youth and children, education and environment among others. In this way, the objectives of the SAARC are to promote the welfare of the people of this region through the fulfillment of the SAARC Development Goals (SDG).
The South Asian region has enormous development potential. Yet, in many ways, its ability to address the problem of poverty has been limited. Creating opportunities to reduce poverty is a key issue. It has been recognized that without sustainable growth, we would be following a road that leads to the redistribution of poverty.
SAARC efforts, therefore, should be aimed at broadening and deepening the development process in ways that enlarge the basis of achieving a high rate of economic growth with a combination of mutually reinforcing factors.
The poor in our region not only have few income opportunities, they also lack access to basic human needs such as education, health, clean drinking water, sanitation and a clean environment. Limited access to these facilities limits their ability to secure gainful employment, and earn a respectable social status.
The problem tends to worsen when institutions of governance tend to ignore the true dimensions of poverty, and in the process do very little to address the issue.
The most important target of this development framework is to reduce the percentage of the population living below the food poverty line by one half by 2015 as set out by the Millennium Development Goals.
This can be accomplished through increased economic opportunities for the poor, implementation of policies regarding their empowerment, improved access to physical and social assets and social safety nets for those who are too weak to participate in the market-based growth process.
However, there is no massive awareness about the SDGs even among the conscious segment of the society. The lack of awareness about regional and global goals is also because of the failure of the policymakers and officials to use the media as a tool.
It demands that a new approach in development be adopted. Furthermore, a renewed commitment for a collective approach would be a driving force for this. The leaders who have gathered in Colombo this week should make firm commitments for the fruitful and timely achievements of the main over-arching goal of poverty alleviation.
The agreements & communiqué
The Heads of State, Foreign Ministers of the respective countries reached consensus on several issues; a) Charter of SAARC Development Fund (SDF) b) Agreement on the Establishment of South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO); SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and the Protocol on Accession of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). SAARC underscored the importance of combating global terrorism, a menace particularly rampant in the region which if not eradicated, would affect the region’s stability and security. The members have ensured the signature at this summit of the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, condemned all forms of terrorist violence, and emphasized that our States should firmly cooperate, especially through the exchange of information on terrorism and organized crime. As a far-sighted SAARC project to unite the youth of the region, they have directed the South Asian University to commence its first session in 2010.
They also agreed to host the 16th Summit meeting of the SAARC Heads of State in the Maldives in 2009.
The two-day 15th SAARC Summit Sunday adopted a 41-point Colombo Declaration articulating commitments of the South Asian leaders to implement the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in its letter and spirit through issuing directives for removing trade barriers and giving special consideration to LDCs in the bloc. In the communiqué the SAARC leaders recognized the need to continue to address the major barriers hindering effective trade liberalization in the region, which include sensitive lists of items and Non-Trade Barriers (NTBs). The declaration focused on collective regional efforts in core areas of food, energy security, trade, combating terrorism, climate change, connectivity, terrorism, partnership for growth for the peoples of the region, environment, water resources, poverty alleviation, SDF, transport, ICT Development, SAFTA and Trade Facilitation and SAARC Social Charter.
The member-states want that the SAARC Food Bank be urgently operationalized, the SAARC Agriculture Perspective 2020 drawn up early and forge greater cooperation with the international community to ensure food availability and nutrition security in South Asia.
The declaration stressed to make effort to move towards a uniform applicable low tariff for international direct-dial calls within the region; fast-tracking projects for improving intra-regional connectivity and facilitating economic, social and people-to-people contact. The South Asian heads of state or government resolved to work together on environment and climate change to prevent and address the threats to the livelihood of the peoples and to provide access to remedies when these rights are violated. They would also find an equitable distribution of responsibilities and rights among member-states and emphasized the role of cultural connectivity in bringing the peoples of South Asia closer, while reinforcing and projecting a distinct South Asian identity. They directed that the Agenda for Culture be implemented in full.
In view of the emerging global situation of reduced food availability and worldwide rise in food prices, we direct that an Extra-ordinary Meeting of the Agriculture Ministers of the SAARC Member States be convened in New Delhi, India in November 2008, to evolve and implement a people-centered short to medium term regional strategy and collaborative projects that would, among others, lead to:
• Increase in food production;
• Investment in agriculture and agro-based industries;
• Agriculture research and prevention of soil health degradation;
• Development and sharing of agricultural technologies;
• Sharing of best practices in procurement and distribution; and
• Management of the climatic and disease-related risks in agriculture.
The net result of the summit was an agreement on a Partnership for Growth for the Peoples of South Asia, Regional cooperation Energy, Environment, Water Resources, Poverty Alleviation, SAARC Development Fund (SDF), Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Development, Science and Technology, Tourism, SAARC Social Charter, Culture, SAFTA and Trade Facilitation, Trade in Services, Women and Children, Education and Combating Terrorism. The leaders endorsed the Colombo Declaration of the fifteenth SAARC Summit.
The leaders renewed their resolve for collective regional efforts to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development which would promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improve their quality of life and thereby contribute to peace, stability, amity and progress in the region.
The four agreements that got the seal of approval of the South Asian countries, as representatives from the observer-states looked over, are the Charter of SAARC Development Fund, agreement on the Establishment of South Asian Regional Standard Organization (SARSO), SAARC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters and Protocol on Accession of Afghanistan to South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement.
Appreciating the signing of the SAARC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters at the 15th summit today, they urged early ratification and implementation of the new common instrument of fight.
The heads of state or government renewed their resolve for collective regional efforts to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development which would promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improve their quality of life and thereby contribute to peace, stability, amity and progress in the region.
They directed the SAFTA committee of experts to expeditiously resolve the issue of non-tariff and para-tariff measures to facilitate and enhance trade under the free-trading regime stipulated in the now-dormant SAFTA.
On combat against terrorism, the SAARC leaders expressed deep concern over the “serious threat posed by terrorism to the peace, stability and security of the region”.
They emphasized the need for strongest possible cooperation in the fight against terrorism and transnational organized crime amongst the relevant agencies of the member-states, especially in the area of information exchange.
On energy front, the heads of state or government stressed the urgent need for developing the regional hydro potential, grid connectivity and gas pipelines.
They noted that the possibility of evolving an appropriate regional inter-governmental framework may be explored to facilitate such an endeavor.
On poverty alleviation, the declaration emphasized undertaking sustained efforts, including developing and implementing regional and sub-regional projects towards the attainment of SAARC Development Goals (SDGs). It was stated that the decision by the Ministers on Poverty Alleviation to obtain an inter-governmental midterm review of the attainment of the SDGs to be completed by 2009. The SAARC leaders welcomed Nepal‘s offer to host next Ministerial Meeting on poverty alleviation.
They expressed satisfaction at the signing of the SAARC Development Fund and also the launch and identification of the projects on women empowerment, maternal and child health and teacher training under the social window of SDF. They accepted with appreciation Bhutan‘s offer to set up SDF Secretariat in Thimpu. Acknowledging the significant steps taken to alleviate poverty in the region, the heads of state or government resolved to combat poverty by all available means, especially through people’s empowerment.
On transport sector, expressing satisfaction at the progress through the meetings of the Ministers of Transport, the SAARC leaders reiterated the critical importance of an efficient multimodal transport system in the region for integration and for sustaining the region’s economic growth and competitiveness. They urged early implementation in a gradual and phased manner of the proposals of the SAARC Regional Multimodal Transport Study (SRMTS) and took note of the progress made in the consideration of the draft of Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA).
The leaders also emphasized the need for assessing and managing its risks and impacts. In this regard, they called for an in-depth study on “Climate Justice”.
The declaration carries concern at the human loss suffered through natural disaster in the region and stress on the need for the timely provision of relief in humanitarian emergencies. They directed creating a Natural Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism to adopt a coordinated and planned approach to meet such emergencies under the aegis of the SAARC Disaster Management Centre.
They expressed deep concern over global climate change and its impact on the lives and livelihoods in the region while expressed satisfaction at the adoption of SAARC Action Plan and Dhaka Declaration on Climate Change by the SAARC Environment Ministers at the SAARC Ministerial Meeting in the Bangladesh capital on July 3, 2008.
On water resources, the SAARC leaders directed initiation of process of capacity building and encouragement of research, combining conservation practices such as rainwater harvesting, and river- basin management to ensure sustainability of water resources in South Asia.
Expressing deep concern at the looming global water crisis, they recognized that South Asia must be at the forefront of bringing a new focus to the conservation of water resources.
Some Observations: Irrelevance of SAARC?
Leaders from eight South Asian nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – have outlined an ambitious set of goals for the 15th Saarc summit, which include poverty alleviation, ensuring food security, tackling energy shortfalls and fighting terrorism. There is skepticism that Saarc with varies voices can tackle such a to-do list. Saarc is notorious for issuing declarations full of rhetoric while there is little implementation of these directives. The grouping was formed to foster economic development in the region but old rivalries among members have blocked progress for the group.
SAARC, now at 23 years of age, could not yet create any significant impact in the minds of the people as an organization contributing towards the welfare of one fifth of the total population of the world. During this long time, the delay in implementation of decisions featured as unfortunate bottleneck and red tape emerged as a major impediment.
South Asian nations waste huge resources on military equipment and upgradation on a regular basis, while India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka spend about 20 % of their scarce resources that could have been used for poverty reduction, health care including diseases eradication. In fact in the name of defense every country is cheating their own voters and swindles their money on bribery and commissions. One wonders why India is so weapon thirsty and amazes such huge piles of arms arsenals, when a good majority of people are under poverty line, malnourished and sick. .
According to the World Bank, South Asia is the poorest, the most illiterate, the most malnourished, the least gender sensitive and the most deprived region of the world. It contains about 22 percent of the world’s total population. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s poor live in this region. More than three quarters of South Asia’s 1.5 billion people earn less than two dollars a day. Almost all the countries of this region are facing similar problems like poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, diseases, income inequality, low productivity and dependence on agricultural sector. Thus the socio-economic condition of this region as a whole is in shambles. In order to deal with all such challenges it was in 1985 that Saarc was formed. But as a whole it has failed miserably to make any significant headway pertaining to the development of the region. The reasons are many. Political reasons are especially the most notable hurdle in making this South Asian body stronger. There are more intra-state and inter-state conflicts in South Asia as compared to any other regional bloc in the world
Deep-seated hostility between India and Pakistan has paralyzed key economic pacts, including the setting up of a free trade area. But with Pakistan’s new trade policy, according to which Pakistan would allow a greater range of imports from India, including diesel, it is hoped that the South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) agreement would be followed in letter and spirit. By expanding trade links with India, Pakistan has moved forward towards implementing Safta. The Saarc countries should not forget that economic ties are the strongest in today’s world.
India still refuses to involve the freedom fighting groups in peace talks fearing embarrassment on its part to account for genocides, destructions and secret grave-yards in Kashmir. India arrogance is causing problems. Manmohan Singh in his previous meetings with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, had sought to push the peace process even though other experiments like the joint mechanism on “terrorism” have predictably failed, because Kashmiris were never involved in the talks, no the issue of freedom was on their agenda. Granting sovereignty back to Kashmiris by India alone will pave the right path for regional normalcy and peace.
Tensions are now rising again due to an attack on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan last month that New Delhi blames on “elements” in Pakistan and a clash between Indian and Pakistani forces along the LoC. Pakistan has denied allegations its spies helped bomb the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, and there have been renewed border tensions over Kashmir. The row threatened to overshadow the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) summit in Colombo. Pakistan‘s Foreign Ministry issued another denial, describing the claims as “total rubbish”. In the backdrop of the US-India Nuke deal the concerns have not only strained Pakistan-US relations but fueled tension between Pakistan and India. The one way to overcome the political differences would be to boost trade between the Saarc countries.
Since the establishment of SAARC, more often than not the nations fail to reach a consensus on many issues and most agreements are signed on a bilateral basis. Many observers have also pointed out that the rivalry between India and Pakistan and the longstanding dispute over Kashmir casts a shadow over the camaraderie and effectiveness of the entire exercise.
In the Dhaka Declaration in December 1985, the Heads of State or Government present conceded that these countries of South Asia were faced with the formidable challenges posed by stark poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment and teeming population and sharing an imperialistic past. They concurred that regional cooperation provided a logical response to these problems. But even today these countries along with its newest member Afghanistan are far from having realized their goal. Many say it’s the summit of eight leaders of the region only makes for a nice photo opportunity, nothing else.
So-called terrorism has to be checked not by counter –terrorism but with measures that address the genuine concerns of those who take extreme steps as the only option open to them. However, the Convention for Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters would provide a broad framework for the SAARC member countries to mutually cooperate and assist in the investigation and prosecution of crime and extremism, including state terrorism. However all unnecessary caution has to be observed when determining the crime and just don’t leave the matters to the security services alone.
The speculations are rife regarding writing off the SAAC as an effective regional forum to augment the harnessing human natural resources for the furtherance of regional uplift. Like NAM and other organizations that have almost died down owing to the pressures for the time, SAARC is also being written off by the leaders themselves who want to protect their resources from being used for collective good.
The two-day 15th SAARC Summit concluded on August 03 with the adoption of Colombo declaration on food security and the signing of four agreements on cooperation in core areas under the graduating South Asian grouping. The Lankan President announced that the next SAARC Summit would be held in Male, the capital of the Maldives, in 2009. Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, delivering vote of thanks in the closing session, said, “I am looking forward to welcoming all in Male at 16th SAARC Summit in 2009.” Sri Lanka will host the third Meeting of SAARC Energy Ministers in Colombo in 2009.
Sri Lanka, the current chair of SAARC, Colombo now. The SAARC Development Goals in conjunction with the Millennium Development Goals would serve as a general backdrop for providing opportunities for poverty reduction in the region. The SAARC Development Goals are a step in the right direction. has earnestly voiced concerns to strengthen the forum to serve the region collectively. A lot is expected of
Regional tensions in South Asia are the creation of India by militarizing Jammu Kashmir annexed by it in 1947. Sustained genocides on a regular basis and other criminal activities by state agencies have harmed not only Kashmiri lives, but also vitiated the atmosphere in the region. It is, therefore, certain that peace could be regained in the region when India withdraws its terror forces form Jammu Kashmir and surrender sovergnty back to the struggling Kashmiris. The ball is clearly on Indian courts.