Slow summitry

  • Saarc Summit must focus on strengthening the Secretariat with autonomy and resources
Slow summitry

Nov 19, 2014-

The Saarc Summit is scheduled for next week and much of the government’s energies are geared towards ensuring that it is a success. Technical preparations to facilitate the movement of guests are on and it seems that the government is serious about ensuring that foreign dignitaries face no hardship during their time in Nepal. The Foreign Minister was until recently busy with the drafting of the Kathmandu Declaration, which has been sent to other Saarc countries for their inputs. It is expected that at least three agreements—related to energy cooperation, motor vehicle connectivity, and railway connectivity—will be signed during the Summit. The official theme of the Summit is ‘Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity’. Broadly, this includes two aspects: increasing road connectivity between Saarc nations and lowering existing trade barriers.

All of these are very laudable goals. But it has to be remembered that Saarc member states have been discussing these issues now for almost 30 years. At every Saarc summit, the member countries sign scores of agreements and their leaders make soaring speeches about the importance of integration. Yet, Saarc is the least integrated regional association in the world. Trade across borders is pitiful; visitors from one Saarc country to another often face onerous visa regulations.

This is in part due to the complex politics of the region. For example, the difficult relationship between India and Pakistan has negatively affected the entire Saarc process. Nonetheless, not all of the problems are intractable. In fact, some of them are entirely self-inflicted and can be resolved relatively easily. For example, a major weakness of Saarc has been its failure to implement agreements that are reached during the summits. This is partially caused by the weakness of the Saarc Secretariat. The Saarc member states have never been willing to grant the Secretariat autonomy and sufficient resources. Rather, they have sought to politicise the Secretariat and keep it deliberately weak. This needs to change. There should be substantial discussions about mechanisms that can be established in order to strengthen the Secretariat.

Finally, Saarc has hardly been able to utilise the good offices of the nine observer countries, even though they include powerful and rich nations like the US, Australia, and China. Here again, the reason is partially political. For example, India may not want to see China have much of a role in Saarc. The upcoming Summit plans to deepen engagement with observer nations, so that they can contribute directly to

Saarc’s development. There is a danger that these discussions will consist of mere platitudes and formalities. It would be unfortunate if this were to happen.

There are major lessons to be learned regarding engaging observers from other regional groupings such as Asean. Nepali politicians and officials need to ensure that the upcoming Saarc Summit produces real results and isn’t just another wasted opportunity. And as for India, Saarc’s most influential member-state, it should start to prioritise regional integration with the generosity that behooves a large neighbour that aspires to be a regional leader.

Published: 20-11-2014 09:30

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