The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) comprises eight countries of South Asia, i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was first mooted in May 1980 by Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman. President Rahman addressed letters to the Heads of Government of the countries of South Asia, presenting his vision for the future of the region and the compelling arguments for regional cooperation in the context of evolving international realities. The Foreign Secretaries of seven countries in South Asia met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981 and identified five broad areas for regional cooperation. A series of meetings followed in Nepal (Kathmandu/November 1981), Pakistan (Islamabad/August, 1982), Bangladesh, India (Delhi/July 1983) to enhance regional cooperation. The next step of this process was the Foreign Ministers meeting in New Delhi in 1983 where they adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation (SARC). During the next two years South Asian nations committed themselves to form this South Asian alliance and the process culminated in the First SAARC Summit held on 7-8 December in 1985 in Dhaka where the Heads of State or Government of seven countries, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka adopted the Charter formally establishing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
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It is an Association based on the consciousness that in an increasingly interdependent world, the objectives of peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity are best achieved in the South Asian region by fostering mutual understanding, good neighbourly relations and meaningful cooperation among the Member States which are bound by ties of history and culture
The objectives and principles contained in the SAARC Charter are as follows:
a) To promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;
b) To accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realise their full potential
c) To promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia;
d) To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems;
d) To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields
e) To strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
f) To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interests; and
g) To cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.
a) Cooperation within the framework of the Association is based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit;
b) Such cooperation is to complement and not to substitute bilateral or multilateral cooperation; and
c) Such cooperation should be consistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations of Member States.
Preamble to the SAARC Charter
The preamble to the SAARC Charter spells out the intention of forming this South Asian alliance as “We, the Heads of State or Government of BANGLADESH, BHUTAN, INDIA, MALDIVES, NEPAL, PAKISTAN and SRI LANKA; ‘Desirous of promoting peace, stability, amity and progress in the region through strict adherence to the principles of the UNITED NATIONS CHARTER and NON-ALIGNMENT, particularly respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and peaceful settlement of all disputes’
‘Conscious that in an increasingly interdependent world, the objectives of peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity are best achieved in the SOUTH ASIAN region by fostering mutual understanding, good neighbourly relations and meaningful cooperation among the Member States which are bound by ties of history and culture’
‘Aware of the common problems, interests and aspirations of the peoples of SOUTH ASIA and the need for joint action and enhanced cooperation within their respective political and economic systems and cultural traditions’”
‘Convinced that regional cooperation among the countries of SOUTH ASIA is mutually beneficial, desirable and necessary for promoting the welfare and improving the quality of life of the peoples of the region; ‘Convinced further that economic, social and technical cooperation among the countries of SOUTH ASIA would contribute significantly to national and collective self-reliance;
‘Recognising that increased cooperation, contacts and exchanges among the countries of the region will contribute to the promotion of friendship and understanding among their peoples;
Do hereby agree to establish an organization to be known as SOUTH ASIAN ASSOCIATION FOR REGIONAL COOPERATION hereinafter referred to as the ASSOCIATIONâ€¦’
Changes in SAARC over a period of time
After more than two decades since its founding at the initiative of General Zia-ul -Rahman, the then President of Bangladesh, the number of members is being increased from seven to eight. And for the first time a member with no common border with India — Afghanistan — joined SAARC. Also China, Japan, US, South Korea and the European Union attended the Summit as observers. It is only logical that in the not very distant future Russia too will be added to the list of observers.
SAARC was conceived as an organisation to promote regional economic and technological cooperation. It was expected that such cooperation, if it is sustained will lead to increased political and security cooperation. Both in the case of European Union and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) the countries concerned had a shared perception of their security challenges. This did not happen in case of SAARC. There was a war between two members of the SAARC in 1999 and a military confrontation in 2002. Therefore nurturing SAARC as a regional organisation has been a far more challenging task than those faced by organisations like the European Union and the ASEAN.
In fact one member of SAARC (Pakistan) refuses to extend the normal most favoured nation treatment to its neighbour (India) though this is a basic prerequisite under the World Trade Organisation regulations.
Though there has been a formal agreement to convert the SAARC region into a free trade area, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been reluctant to move towards the fulfillment of that objective. In reality SAARC is largely a name board with annual rituals, not always regularly observed.
While in other parts of the world, the trend is towards countries coming together to form larger markets, in South Asia this sentiment prevails only among Sri Lanka, Bhutan and India. Pakistan and Bangladesh do not contribute to the world-wide wisdom that countries coming together to form larger markets is a mutually beneficially proposition.
In Europian countries like Germany and France got over their centuries old animosity. This happened when countries like Germany, Italy, Spain discarded their authoritarian regimes and became democracies. In ASEAN too Indonesia and Malaysia concluded peace after years of confrontation. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia who fought long wars with the US, which was supported by other ASEAN countries have now become economic and political partners of countries which helped to wage war against them.
Unfortunately such radical transformation has not taken place in South Asia. There are reasons to believe that underlying this difference in development may be that religion-based identity exercises greater dominance in some countries of South Asia than nationalism-based identity.
In admitting a number of successful economic powers as observers to the SAARC, the expectation is that such interaction may help to convert the mindset of the countries which still resist regional economic cooperation and integration in a world which is rapidly globalising. India has attempted to get Bangladesh into a BIMSTECH arrangement consisting of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Such a change in mindset is a time-consuming process and therefore there should not be exaggerated expectations with the new beginning with entry of Afghanistan into SAARC and five new observers.
The future of SAARC appears to be brighter because in the past. SAARC was buffeted by Cold War tensions and Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh were attempting to exploit the differences between India and China and India and the US. Recent changes in the orientation of US policy and the Washington perception about the need to have a balance of power in Asia and consequent need to enhance Indo-US relations have had a radical impact on India’s relations with China and South East Asia.
Increasingly India is referred to as one of the six balancers of power in the emerging international system. India today has a strategic partnership with Russia, the US and the European Union and a strategic dialogue with China and Japan.
The visits of Premier Wen Jia Bao of China, President Vladamir Putin of Russia, Prime Junichiro Minister Koizumi of Japan and President Bush to India and invitation to India along with China to attend the G-8 summit of advanced industrial powers has helped to transform the situation in the SAARC region towards increasing cooperation.
There is now better realisation that neither India-China nor India-US relations can be exploited by other nations as happened during the Cold War.
In the SAARC region democracy is gaining ground. Afghanistan has an elected government for the first time. Recent developments in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, though yet to result in full blown democracy are moving in a positive direction. In Bhutan monarchy is voluntarily transforming itself into a democracy.
Some Pakistani intellectuals argue that the factor that stands in the way of regional cooperation and integration in South Asia is the overwhelming dominance of India which constitutes more than 70 per cent of the population, resources and industrial and agricultural production of the region. It is therefore difficult to compare the evolution of SAARC with that of European Union or ASEAN. In a sense it could be argued that India itself with its multi-culturalism, multilingual, multiethnic and multi religious composition is like a further integrated European Union.
Political evolution within India has made it inevitable that India will be federally governed by coalitions of all-India and regional parties with regional autonomy and aspirations fully accommodated. This development is bound to have its impact on the rest of the SAARC region. So will India’s rapid economic development, its aspirations to become a knowledge based
society, its secular values and democracy.
There were people in India’s neighbourhood who thought Indian unity would not survive. This conviction persuaded them not to invest in the evolution of SAARC over the last two decades. That situation is changing.
Though it is unrealistic to expect any immediate radical changes in the attitudes of Pakistan and even Bangladesh towards SAARC there is no doubt that a new era of increasing integration is beginning, because of the forces of globalisation and emergence of an international balance of power.
Challenges & Opportunities
The region is full of challenges and opportunities. South Asia is home to more than 1.5 billion people associated with various racial, lingual and religious groups. Some of the main challenges and problems facing the region include poverty, illiteracy, underdevelopment, terrorism, human trafficking, and racial and ethnic conflicts. Similarly, food and energy crises have also come out as burning issues of the region. In spite of such challenges and problems, South Asia is abundant in human as well as natural resources. When these resources are managed and utilized effectively, the region is sure to make considerable socio-economic progress within a short span of time.
The South Asian people have many reasons to be optimistic if we look at the SAARC Charter that has included all the existing realities in the sub-continent, with the countries of different sizes, various levels of socio-economic development, historical legacies between and among the nations of the region. But, when the progress made by SAARC is assessed minutely, we do not find a very encouraging picture in terms of quality of life the people in South Asia.
However, SAARC is gradually fostering cooperation among the member states in a wide range of areas. Because of its contributions to promoting peace, good neighbourly relations and bringing about socio-economic transformation in the region, SAARC has become a valuable forum among its member states. As a saying goes: ‘Rome was not built in a day’, the regional forum also requires some more time to achieve its goals and objectives.