Hope for a union

  • The upcoming Saarc Summit is a chance for Nepal to take the initiative on stronger regional integration
- PRABHAT CHHETRI
Hope for a union

Oct 21, 2014-

Article III of Saarc Charter provides for a heads of state meeting, at least once a year, but the forthcoming 18th Saarc Summit, which will be taking place in Kathmandu in November, is happening after an interval of three years because of political instability. Kathmandu, home of the Saarc Secretariat, is being rapidly renovated and beautified, indicating the arrival of the Summit at our doorstep. Being a major foreign policy event that Nepal hosts, making the summit a grand success is linked closely to the country’s prestige and image.

After the end of World War II, the concept of regional alliance took hold for the common good of member states, which even today plays a major role in achieving collective socio-economic goals. Saarc, which is a close replica of the European Union (EU), was established with the agreement to create a trade and political bloc and provide a platform for the people of South Asia to work together in a spirit of trust, friendship, and understanding. But today, the rhetoric around Saarc is polarised in two distinctly different paradigms.

Two ways of seeing

The optimistic view holds that as South Asia is a sensitive region with more than one sixth of the world’s population with extensive and deep-rooted relations, Saarc can play a decisive role in world politics. So perhaps, it will take some time for Saarc to produce tangible results, as compared to the EU and the Association of South East Asian States (Asean), Saarc has a more brief history. We cannot expect overnight results. Leaders of the region are willing to cooperate, meet, and discuss collectively on contemporary issues. Likewise, many nations outside of the region are seeking observer status in Saarc, reflecting its global relevance.

Despite having a common socio-cultural and historical legacy, the skeptical view holds that Saarc has only been able to make modest progress. It has become a purely symbolic representation and has forgotten its real objectives. The Saarc Charter obliges its member nations to cooperate on the basis of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, political independence, and non-interference, irrespective of the nations’ size and strength. But tense relations exist among the member states, which has held Saarc prisoner to geopolitical realities.

Powerful countries like India and Pakistan should have played an active role in strengthening Saarc but instead, they are busy with their own state affairs and given their history, are not too open to collaboration. Bilateral relations between other Saarc member states are also not positive.

Thus, the Saarc Summit has been limited to an occasion for heads of the states to get together but produce little concrete output. Saarc is notorious for making high-sounding declarations that initially attract media attention but prove irrelevant later.

Taking initiative

The upcoming Summit too is supposed to be an important instrument to provide directives and mandates for regional cooperation. But organising the 18th Summit will be a real challenge for Nepal. When Nepal hosted its first summit, the then king and his Council of Ministers actively initiated and observed all preparations. Saarc leaders had then praised Nepal’s cordial reception, generous hospitality, and the excellent arrangements for the Summit. After an interval of 12 years, Saarc leaders will be expecting the same standard, which Nepal should meet at any cost.

Nepal needs to take initiative to institutionalise the ‘Summit Declaration’, which is often seen simply as a ‘cosmetic’ declaration. Nepal also needs to lobby to strengthen Saarc mechanisms, including the Secretariat and Regional Centres, through an inter-governmental process. Recently, influential regional leaders have stressed regional integrity. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even invited Saarc leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, which symbolises India’s willingness for a ‘new beginning’ in extending relations at a regional level. Thus, organising the 18th Saarc Summit will be an immense opportunity for Nepal to play an active role in ending hostilities, rivalries, and suspicion between Saarc member states.

Saarc’s every work is based on consensus but it extensively reflects national interests rather than the collective interest. On the other hand, EU members have surrendered their sovereignty and interests to the EU, which is an important ingredient for a successful regional alliance. At the Summit, Nepal too can work to inspire member states to break the wall of political and national interests. Here, replicating a few aspects from the EU can help make a better Saarc.

The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta), which was originally established to build a strong economic bloc to compete with the EU and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), has been struggling to stay relevant. Safta documents are largely limited to paper and there is no mutual economic trust between Saarc countries. In this era of globalisation, trade in the EU and Nafta have been great successes. Even the largely successful Indo-China trade reflects the region’s economic possibilities. So, the Summit should also focus on institutionalising and building on Safta for the economic wellbeing of its member states.

Strengthening relations

Similarly, the Summit should encourage the strengthening of Indo-Pak relations. For the sake of defence, a counter-argument may be made citing Article X (II) of the Saarc Charter, which states, “Bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations”. But in practice, Indo-Pak relations are affecting the entire region, making the two nations the biggest obstacles to regional integration. Therefore, this issue ought to be addressed collectively by Saarc leaders, both on formal and informal bases. India and Pakistan have the potential to play important roles in the region, much in the way Germany and France did in the EU.

Hence, the 18th Summit is an opportunity for Saarc to learn from its past experiences, institutionalise reforms, and bring shifts in multilateral relations, ultimately leading to a stronger regional union. Organising the Kathmandu Summit can be an excellent platform to promote Nepal’s image and goodwill on the international platform.

Chhetri is associated with the International Relations Committee of the Law Students Society

Published: 22-10-2014 08:49

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