Yet to come of age: SAARC needs to redefine its goals, urge opinion makers

Published: May 28, 2013
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“SAARC has often been described as a ‘talk-shop,’”observes former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed Khan.

“SAARC has often been described as a ‘talk-shop,’”observes former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed Khan.

ISLAMABAD: With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nearing its 30-year anniversary, leading military, political and media figures in member countries urged the need to redefine the structural and operational goals of the regional body.

They pointed out that priority must be given to ensure that SAARC states have the regional perspective clearly drawn, goals and priorities pragmatically defined and wherewithal appropriately geared towards the realisation of declared objectives.

“SAARC faults can be repaired through rewriting of its Charter, redefining of its goals and objectives, re-ordering of its priorities and action plans, reinforcing of the organisation’s operational capacity and streamlining of its functional methodology,” said retired Pakistani diplomat Shamshad Ahmed Khan.

With will and commitment from member-countries being the achilles heel for SAARC, Khan said that the fault lines will not be smoothened unless the member-states rise above narrow national interests and instead assume joint ownership of their regional efforts for mutual benefit.

For Sri Lankan war commander General (retd) Srilal Weerasooriya, who served his country fighting the LTTE, peace may hinge on a vibrant SAARC. If Pakistan, Afghanistan and India want to establish peace in South Asia, then they will have to make the SAARC—a vibrant association.”

General Weerasooriya, who has also served as Ambassador to Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, urged Russia and China to play their due role in peace building process in South Asian region. “As usual trade will not work,” he said increased engagement between all SAARC member-states with a new result-oriented normative framework and operational culture consistent with our regional ground realities is needed to infuse new life within the organisation.

Two countries who used SAARC to further their bi-lateral ties have been India and Pakistan. The SAARC conference has been used to foster bilateral meetings between the two estranged neighbours on neutral platforms. “In their last meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in Maldives, Prime Ministers of both India and Pakistan agreed that the process of trade normalisation between the two countries to make the association more vibrant in the South Asia,” a joint statement had read.

Indeed, trade is one way to burgeon closer ties and solve problems in each other’s country to further strengthen the association. “SAARC nations need more interaction. To fight poverty, securing energy needs, cooperation is essential amongst nations of one of the most troubled, poorest regions in the works,” observed NDTV senior foreign affairs correspondent Anchal Vohra.

But for BBC Urdu editor Haroon Rashid the success of trade in strengthening SAARC hinges greatly on whether Pakistan and India can normalise their bi-lateral relations.

“Being the big two [India and Pakistan], they will have to show leadership. They can’t keep smaller states hostage to their difficult relations. They need to first sort out their own relations, others will benefit automatically.”

What has gone wrong with SAARC?

Former Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed Khan said that SAARC, despite its almost negligible output and a yawning gap between its promise and performance, still has a long way to go before it comes of age.

“SAARC has often been described as a ‘talk-shop,’” he observed, where every SAARC summit meeting ends with a new “vision” for the region’s “progress and prosperity.

Khan said that we first and foremost need “an enabling environment” without which no regional cooperation can move ahead.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Enough...!
    May 28, 2013 - 10:22AM

    The best thing to do is to kick pakistan out of SAARC
    it is currently the worst in terms of economic growth, and security status
    even afghanistan shall prove to be a better member

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  • Noble Tufail
    May 28, 2013 - 10:35AM

    Where there is will there is way.

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  • Noble Tufail
    May 28, 2013 - 1:15PM

    @Enough failure to be able to work with Pakistan only ?? show me the good Indian record with Sri Lanka, Nepal Bengladesh etc. Neverthless a good number of educated Indian youth still seems to be positive to build a better south asia, and you may not be one of them.

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  • Indian Observer
    May 28, 2013 - 4:38PM

    @Noble Tufail:

    India does not have any major issues with its other neighbours. It has NEVER had any armed conflict with the remaining SAARC member states. Pakistan has not only bedeviled multilateral and bilateral relations but it has also stopped SAARC’s forward movement right in its tracks, thanks to its myopic and obstructive trade policies (not to forget its use of violent terrorism as a foreign police tool!). Indeed, just visit any of the SAARC member states and announce yourself as a Pakistani. The reaction will be a cold stare, at best, and a heap of vitriolics, at worst, in the host country. And we are not even talking about the developed countries of the West or even the Muslim countries of the Gulf or Southeast Asia where Pakistanis are treated as unwelcome visitors. It has often been said that SAARC (without Pakistan but with Afghanistan on board) would move much faster. Show us one grouping where Pakistan has made any constructive contribution. Even in the OIC, where Pakistan makes noises about its obsession with Kashmir (which many know is used to justify Pakistan’s own existence), it causes a lot of embarrassment to many members that have friendly ties with India, Pakistan is being tolerated because of the perceived Muslim character. So, my dear friend, come down from your high pedestal because you know what you are.

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  • Noble Tufail
    May 29, 2013 - 1:53PM

    @Indian Observer
    Thanks for your comments. I feel sorry for your myopic view of Pakistan, we are society of 180 million people with all the richness of art, culture, literature, sufism, architecture ,multiple languages, traditions and above all a geography with our significant role in the region. Your wishful thinking about SAARC minus Pakistan is single most important evidence of your failure to be able to work as even a team player, let alone the persumed leader in the region. The record is not impressive with other neighbours equally, Maldivs, Bhutan, Dhaka, Nepal and Sri Lanka, no one is in complete comfort with New Delhi. Even then we belive that SAARC is the forum where we can all engage ourselves in the constructive manner to think of stable, prosperous region moving beyond the Indian Hegemony and bilateral differences.

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  • Tulsi
    May 30, 2013 - 5:43PM

    @Noble Tufail:
    I read your comments in response to the Indian Observer’s remarks, and I must step in to correct some falacies that seem to guide your views about India. Indian Observer was right in pointing out that India has never had an armed conflict with its neighbours (except with the “Land of the Pure”). India may have some differences with its other neighbours but these are resolved amicably. However, there is nothing close to the hostility and resentment (and the armed conflict) with Pakistan. The richness of your culture, art,literature, etc. etc. etc., of which you speak, is not exclusive to Pakistan which has existed on the map for merely 60 years. India is nearly 5000 years old! Indeed, the entire culture of Pakistan has a strong Indian footprint, even though you profess to be “Arabic” (nobody knows – including Pakistani scholars — what that means, particularly when you consider that your “Arab ancestry” scoffs at you, as is evident from the treatment Pakistanis get in Arab countries). The problem, my dear friend, is that you have grown up in a culture that tends to brainwash its subjects with hate propaganda (as I see in your biased views about India) so that their attention is deflected from the real problems facing the country. On the other hand, Indians are taught from the day they are born to be critical about almost anything around them, including seeking transparency from their leaders. Just look at the text books prescribed for school children and you will be amazed at the totally absurd and diluted fiction they are fed. What can one expect from them when they grow up? And we are not even talking about your madrassa graduates!! Pakistan’s expulsion, it might surprise you, is not only being privately voiced in India but also by other SAARC member states in private conversations. You have missed golden opportunities to join an organization and contribute to the prosperity and development of an entire region, but you missed the opportunity. I hope you will take my comments in the right spirit and seek the truth rather than engage in petty polemics which are leading you nowhere.

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  • Naseer Muhammad
    Jun 1, 2013 - 9:52PM

    @ Indian Observer We can debate the rights and wrongs of the past for all eternity but what’s the point? If the Europeans can forgive each other for their terrible deeds of the past, India and Pakistan have no excuse. Pakistan is changing and all Indians should support and encourage this change. We have a shared glorious history and hopefully a peaceful, prosperous and exciting future.

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  • Mazo
    Jun 5, 2013 - 2:49AM

    SAARC is an utterly meaningless organization. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh are all different and have different priorities. Pakistan has different priorities and India has completely different priorities. The grouping is meaningless when none of the nations share any common agendas.

    India should dissolve SAARC as it has gained nothing from this group for the last 30 years beyond empty meetings and summits. Bi-lateral agreements between India and the various states are of far greater use than these multilateral organizations that can’t decide on anything. Pakistan sees itself as the “middle East”, as does Afghanistan. Sri Lanka, Maldives etc are Island nations with very little stake in security situation or the politics of the Indian mainland. Same is the case with nepal that is again isolated and has no interest in issues beyond its borders.

    ASEAN works because it comprises of states that are roughly the same politically, geographically and economically. SAARC doesn’t share that.

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