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Killing Saarc

Updated September 15, 2018

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“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 stand-off 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 Dec 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.

India’s violation of the charter risks rendering Saarc non est.

“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.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2018