Moribund SAARC stares at another crisis

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Moribund SAARC stares at another crisis

With the incumbent secretary general’s term approaching its end, there is uncertainty regarding his successor

The latest summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was held in Kathmandu in 2014. The next iteration of the biennial regional meeting was supposed to be hosted by Pakistan in Islamabad, but it was postponed indefinitely due to the India-Pakistan tensions.

In the nearly four-decade-long SAARC history, this is the first time the summit-level meeting has not taken place for a long time. As though the India-Pakistan rivalry was not enough, Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 has further pushed SAARC’s future into uncertainty.

While there has been no summit-level meeting in more than eight years, the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu has been conducting its activities, including holding ministerial-level meetings of the member states in a bid to revive the moribund regional body. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, SAARC representatives made it a point of holding virtual meetings.

But now SAARC stares at another potential crisis in a form of leadership vacuum, as the incumbent Secretary General Esala Ruwan Weerakoon approaches the end of his term. Weerakoon, who assumed office on 1 March 2020, will complete his term in March this year.

To date there has not been any decision about his successor. This is because it is now Afghanistan’s turn to send a new secretary general. Like the international community, the SAARC member nations have not recognized the Talibans as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

As a SAARC chair, Nepal has been holding consultations with member states to find a solution, albeit without any progress. As the member countries, primarily India, have not shown any interest, Nepal’s efforts alone cannot yield any results.

Despite the stalemate-like situation, a couple of options are under discussion. First, asking Bangladesh to recommend secretary general by skipping Afghanistan by rule of alphabetical order.

A source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said as Afghanistan’s nomination cannot be accepted under current circumstances, asking Bangladesh to send its representative can be one of the options.

The second option is for Nepal, as a SAARC chair, sending a secretary general—most likely a senior official working at the secretariat— until the new arrangement is made. However, as per SAARC charter, all decisions should be taken in consensus. This means a decision taken without Afghanistan’s consent could create a question of legitimacy.

Experts say SAARC’s relevance is dying also because India, as the most powerful and influential member state, has turned its back on the regional body and shifted its focus on other regional organizations, like BIMSTEC.

Shambhu Ram Simkhada, former Nepali ambassador to the United Nations, is of the view that as a SAARC chair, Nepal should play a proactive role to revive SAARC.

He said since some big member countries do not seem interested in keeping the SAARC alive, Nepal has to make its position clear.

He added that Nepal’s political leadership should take up this issue with the leadership of other member countries.

Initiatives taken from the bureaucratic level, according to Simkhada, cannot yield any substantial result.

Some officials want Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to raise the issue of SAARC with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and other senior government officials during his India visit.

They also want Foreign Minister Bimala Rai Poudel to do her part. Among other tasks, she also has the responsibility of resolving the problem faced by SAARC.

Nepal has always been a strong proponent of regionalism and it was one of the chief architects of SAARC. The country should not give up on the regional body that easily.