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Does SAARC still have some life left in it?

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Does SAARC still have some life left in it?

Even though summit-level meetings have stalled, some regional experts suggest utilizing the various platforms under the SAARC to keep the flames of regional cooperation burning | Photos: Pratik Rayamajhi/ApEx

Afghanistan, a member country of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), has been facing a humanitarian crisis following a Taliban takeover in August last year.  

One of the SAARC’s major objectives is to ensure food security for the people of the region through its Food Bank. The purpose of this bank, which was established in 2007, is to ensure enough food stock for each member country. 

But when Afghanistan plunged into a crisis, the regional body didn’t take any initiative to deliver food to the stricken country. The SAARC countries including Nepal did offer some humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan on an individual basis, but not collectively. This incongruity has also been evident in the Covid-19 pandemic. The regional bloc of eight South Asian countries was ineffective in dealing with the crisis wrought by the coronavirus. The SAARC, as a regional body, could have purchased medical equipment as well as vaccines to protect the populations of member countries. 

In March 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a joint virtual meeting with heads of the state and government of the SAARC countries, where he made some lofty proposals, such as regional air ambulances and visa-free schemes for the doctors and nurses of the region. But these proposals have made no headway. 

These two recent instances have raised questions about the SAARC’s continued viability. It’s been well over three decades since the formation of this regional body and, with each passing year, it seems to be losing its relevance and legitimacy. 

Probably for the first time since its establishment, SAARC is facing an existential crisis and many have lost all hope of its revival. 

Says Moonis Ahmar, an Islamabad-based expert on South Asian affairs, in the prevailing circumstances, it is hard to think of the SAARC as a viable organization. 

“Even in major crises like the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown, and serious environmental challenges, the role of SAARC is nowhere to be seen because of the absence of leadership to take a stand on such issues,” he says.  

The challenges for SAARC continue to mount. 

India-Pakistan tensions are obviously the primary reason for SAARC’s ineffectiveness as a regional body. But there are other causes too, which have been explored throughout this ApEx series. One might even argue activating the regional body will now be tough–even without India-Pakistan hostility.

The international community is yet to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. In September 2021, a meeting of SAARC foreign ministers planned on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly was canceled due to differences among member countries over the participation of Taliban representatives. 

The prospect of any high-level SAARC meeting appears slim for now. Before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, at least some meetings of various regional mechanisms were taking place and there was a semblance of activity. 

Lack of progress on the South Asian Free Trade Agreement and differences in South Asian satellites and motor vehicle agreements are other issues that have imperiled SAARC. Instead of promoting regionalism, member countries have preferred working at the bilateral level. Meanwhile, the agreements on strengthening regional cooperation, connectivity and economic prosperity are increasingly being sidelined.   

Over the years, there have been more than 30 vital agreements among member countries on a range of issues–their implementation remains in limbo. 

Some regional experts, however, say that the SAARC is still relevant. Even though summit-level meetings have been stalled, they argue, activities under the SAARC rubric continue.  

Despite this prevailing pessimism, they suggest continued utilization of the various platforms under the SAARC. 

Laliufar Yasmin, a Dhaka-based foreign policy expert, accepts that given the moribund situation of the SAARC, questions are being raised about its viability. 

“However, I believe the SAARC is still relevant for a host of reasons. For one, it has created South Asia as a political and a cultural region,” she says.  

The SAARC, she argues, works as a form of public diplomacy for South Asian countries even at a time of difficult political relations among its member states. 

“South Asian Games, South Asian Olympic Council, and South Asian Football Games have continued and showed the resilience of South Asian brotherhood. This may not seem to be enough, but they have survived the test of time,” she adds.  

Yasmin, who admits to being a believer in a world of complex interdependence, hopes SAARC will emerge as “a true forum of cooperation by pursuing public diplomacy.” 

But one can’t take much heart from her argument, especially when the meetings of SAARC mechanisms have also been affected in recent times. Several important agreements signed at the summit level have failed to take off. 

Don McLain Gill, a Manila-based geopolitical analyst and author, says the SAARC’s revival is “a long and arduous road.”  

“This is not to say that SAARC should be completely forgotten,” he says. “That there could be a SAARC meeting at the peak of the pandemic suggests some potential in reviving regional cooperation, especially when threat perceptions align toward non-traditional security issues,” he says. 

Given this functional, albeit selective mechanism, he adds, the SAARC can still be utilized as a platform for certain issues. “In order to provide South Asian states options and alternatives to work together on mutually agreed-upon issues, both regional and sub-regional platforms must be equally prioritized,” he suggests. 

Conventions/Agreements signed so far 

• SAARC Charter (December 1985)

• Memorandum on the Establishment of the SAARC Secretariat (November 1986)

• Agreement on the Establishment of the SAARC Food Security Reserve (November 1987)

• Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism (November 1987)

• Regional Convention on Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances (November 1990)

• Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement, SAPTA, (April 1993)

• SAARC Convention on Regional Arrangements for the Promotion of Child Welfare in South Asia (January 2002)

• SAARC Convention on Preventing & Combating Trafficking of Women & Children for Prostitution (January 2002);

• SAARC Social Charter (January 2004)

• Agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) (January 2004)

• Additional Protocol to the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism (January 2004)

• Agreement on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Customs Matters (November 2005)

• Agreement on the Establishment of SAARC Arbitration Council (November 2005)

• Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation and Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters (November 2005)

• Joint Declaration on the Admission of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan into SAARC (April 2007)

• Agreement on Establishment of the SAARC Food Bank (April 2007)

• Agreement on the Establishment of South Asian University (April 2007)

• SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters (August 2008)

• Protocol of Accession of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to Agreement on SAFTA (August 2008)

• Agreement on the Establishment of South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) (August 2008)

• Charter of the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) (August 2008)

• SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS) (April 2010)

• SAARC Convention on Cooperation on Environment (April 2010)

• Agreement on the Establishment of the SAARC Seed Bank (November 2011)

• SAARC Agreement on Multilateral Arrangement on Recognition of Conformity Assessment (November 2011)

• SAARC Agreement on Implementation of Regional Standards (November 2011)

• SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters (November 2011)

• SAARC Framework Agreement on Energy Cooperation (Electricity) (November 2014)

(Source: SAARC Secretariat)