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How to revive SAARC?

How to revive SAARC?

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been awaiting reinvigoration in the absence of any summits since Nepal last hosted it in 2014. What is supposed to be the 19th iteration of the SAARC summit, scheduled to be held on 9-10 Nov 2016 in Pakistan, is not yet visible on the horizon after India pulled out, citing the terrorist attack on its army camp at Uri on 18 September 2016. Currently, only a few low-level meetings of SAARC and routine work of its institutions are taking place, which can neither inject required vitality to this regional body nor justify its relevance.

For the supporters of regionalism, SAARC’s current stagnation is, without any doubt, a vexatious one. I find this situation particularly disconcerting as a person who was deeply involved in the groundwork for the last Kathmandu summit as the head of SAARC Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal and also the chair of the Programming Committee. This situation should be ended as early as possible.

The informal meeting of SAARC foreign ministers, held in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, can take initiatives to break the logjam in favor of reviving the association by creating an enabling environment for the leaders to resume their summit-level engagements. One more such opportunity is in the offing. Overall, it is by addressing such complex situations that an informal forum like this can substantiate its utility.


A number of factors can be attributed to the current stalemate. Differences between member states over their bilateral issues, especially between India and Pakistan, be it security, political developments, free trade, transport connectivity, etc. have at times put the brakes on SAARC’s tempo. As a result, summits (eg 7th, 13th and 19th) have been postponed and vital agreements of regional importance (eg the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement) blocked.

Unlike other regional organizations, member states of SAARC are characterized by their asymmetrical size in terms of territory, economy, demography, technological capability, and so on.  This situation has created an unequal space for their say in regional matters, some enjoying more dominant position and others satisfying a lesser one, based on their respective individual strength, though all countries are equal in terms of sovereignty.

SAARC has aimed at establishing the South Asian Economic Union (SAEU), as declared by the 18th summit, but it has become a remote possibility—at least for the time being, given the absence of requisite steps up till now. Owing to the lack of elements of deeper integration, it will remain as an intergovernmental organization like the ASEAN, but not a supra-national entity like the EU.

Moreover, its main objective to ‘promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life,’ as mentioned in the SAARC Charter, is very wide and vague. Without developing congruent policies, strategies and action plans, complete achievement of it would be easier said than done.

Also, there is virtually no area of cooperation left uncovered by this association, ranging from agriculture to trade to science and technology. But due to a lack of sufficient funds to launch concrete activities in these areas, tangible outcomes benefitting the people directly are absent. Only meetings, workshops and a few minor activities will not bring out coveted results.

Future course

In the current imbroglio, how to hold the next SAARC summit and boost regional cooperation, even in a better manner than before, has become the million-dollar question. As a regional organization, SAARC can definitely add value to individual national efforts towards development and prosperity and also strengthen regional solidarity. But its absence will incur loss of whatever achievements it can make, even though they are of little significance. Therefore, SAARC should not be left to die; it must be revitalized. Following actions can be taken in this regard:

First, all member states must be genuinely interested in building mutual trust, understanding and partnership, without which neither regional esprit de corps nor the healthy growth of SAARC is possible. Further, in no way should any member state create unpleasant situations like threats to the security and interference in the internal matters of other countries or disturbance to regional peace.

Second, it is optimally desirable that each member state fully recognize the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of other fellow member states, adopting the principle of the Panchsheel. Likewise, the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other States,” as mentioned in the SAARC Charter, should be put into practice, not just kept in words.

Third, bilateral and contentious issues between member states, which have often obstructed the path of regional travel, should be resolved by the parties themselves in order to advance regional cooperation. The SAARC process can regain vitality once India and Pakistan agree to resolve their issues at bilateral forums, while enabling the regional forum to take its normal course. Afghanistan also must come out of its present peculiar situation without further delay so that it could meaningfully join the regional process.

Fourth, the leaders of the region have the onus to take a bold and righteous decision regarding holding the next summit. If, for the time being, the summit is not possible to be hosted in Pakistan, an alternative venue needs to be explored to resume the process which Pakistan agrees upon until the conducive environment is created for reverting the chair to it.

Fifth, focus and priority to the countries within the region than without in various areas, such as trade, investment, tourism, etc. can give a boost to regionalism. Only after full utilization of the region’s potentials should member states look beyond it. Such policy and practice will help develop a more integrated and interdependent region. In order to materialize it, ways and means for gaining more from intra-region engagements need to be explored and utilized.

Sixth, the expectation of the peoples of this region is that SAARC produce tangible outcomes for them as a business-like organization, not only be satiated with meetings, ceremonials, statements and declarations. They want to see its institutions as effective vehicles for delivering results.

Seventh, the resources of the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) should be enhanced so as to implement big regional projects in the areas of connectivity, power generation, scientific development, development of health and educational institutions, and the like. As of now, the total commitments to its social, economic and infrastructure windows together have remained a meager amount of $163m. It is less-likely that the implementation of small projects of national character will create any meaningful impact.

Eighth, SAARC has to chart out its course to reach the ultimate destination of SAEU. Progress is expected beyond FTA. Measures, such as placement of a huge number of tradable goods in the sensitive lists and application of safeguard and non-tariff measures, cannot be applied if trade within the region is to be genuinely expanded from an infinitesimal volume of less than five percent.

Nineth, SAARC’s decision-making on unanimity principle also merits revision for its smooth functioning in view of occasional obstructions faced by it at the time of making decisions on vital matters. Practice of regional organizations varies in this regard; the EU decides on matters of common security and foreign policy by unanimity and on other matters by weighted voting and the ASEAN makes decisions by consultation and consensus with the exception of majority voting for concluding economic agreements. SAARC can innovate its own system.

Tenth, triennial SAARC summit, instead of biennial one as agreed upon at the 18th summit, could be more economical and practical, as the extended time frame would be available for the implementation of past summit decisions. New decisions should be made only after the implementation of the previous ones.

Finally, SAARC ought to be activated with great efficacy to build regional synergy for utilizing the vast potentials of South Asia. Countries of this region are fortunate in the sense that they are blessed with immense human and natural resources. This regional body can help them develop various areas of common interest for which individual national efforts are insufficient. It is here that SAARC can prove its worth.

Nepal’s role as chair

At present, Nepal has put on two caps of SAARC, one for a member and another for the chair, which confers on it an additional responsibility for moving the regional cooperation process forward. Thus, Nepal, as the chair, should continue urging India and Pakistan to resolve their differences bilaterally and create a conducive environment for the resumption of the regional process. It can take up this matter individually with all seriousness and priority and, whenever appropriate, also take other member states on board. Reconciling the recalcitrant positions demands Herculean efforts. For this purpose, not customary talks and official statements, but higher-level engagements with deep interest, exploration of alternatives, and diplomatic skill could be of real significance.

The author is former Nepali ambassador to Kuwait