SAARC, its impediments & way forward through dialogue 

SAARC, its impediments & way forward through dialogue 


Despite the string of postponements since it began in 1985, and impacted by last year’s ‘cancellation’ of its 19th summit scheduled to have taken place in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in November, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) continues to struggle for survival. In an effort to salvage the regional body, the Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka and the High Commission of Pakistan jointly organized a seminar, SAARC; its impediments & Way Forward, at the Hotel Galadari in Colombo on 6 February.

The seminar focused on aspects of engagement and conflict management, leaving room for follow-up initiatives that would include the presence of other South Asian stakeholders, particularly India, in order to break the door of silence that has been tightly shut leaving only a barrage of accusations but with no avenue – or will – for discussion to solve them.

The issue of Kashmir, the major unresolved issue that exists in the SAARC region, was one of the key topics at the discussion, along with other current day regional issues, including the Indus Water Treaty brokered between India and Pakistan by the World Bank and signed in 1960.

Although addressing seemingly insurmountable disagreements that plague SAARC at present, centering mainly on India and Pakistan, the seminar proceedings placed emphasis on sensitive engagement with India and other SAARC nations in order to break the current deadlock.

“While we are struggling with our historical issues, there are much larger issues looming on the horizon, issues such as drug proliferation, climate change and water and food security,” High Commissioner of Pakistan  Maj. Gen. (R) Syed Shakeel Hussein said in his opening remarks at the event.

Stating that these issues were global as well as regional, the Pakistani High Commissioner called for all stakeholders of SAARC and for the people of the region to ensure the non-stalling of the dream and initiative of Bangladesh set in motion in 1985.

“SAARC was one of the organizations that had been started for a better life for the citizens of South Asia. Article 3 of the SAARC charter declares that “Heads of State and government shall meet once a year or more often, as and when necessary by the member states,” the Pakistan High Commissioner said, drawing attention to the many postponements of the annual summits and emphasizing that SAARC should not be allowed to be enveloped in a dormant death.

In order to sustain SAARC with the necessary momentum to better the lives of the people of South Asia, outstanding issues should be addressed with an open heart while having mutual respect and regard for sovereignty, the Pakistani High Commissioner stressed.

Secretary of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence and Chairman of the Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka, Eng. Karunasena Hettiarachchi, in his address drew attention to the poverty of the region, using examples of Singapore and Korea to look at how these countries have overcome poverty and also examined the transition of South Asia as a region battling terrorism, highlighting the need to address the root causes of radicalization of youth. Referring to ISIS and its influence across borders as seen in last year’s terror attack in Bangladesh, Hettiarachchi called for the region to unite in combating terrorism.  He also stated that the prioritization of development goals of South Asia was a key collective factor for the region and that SAARC should draw on what it could learn from other regional organizations which are making progressive changes.

Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo, Former Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary and Secretary General of SAARC from 1999 to 2002 spoke of the need of honest introspection in working towards taking SAARC forward as an organization created for the well being of its people.

He noted that insights from countries which have observer status within SAARC, which includes the European Union, Australia, China, Japan and the United States, could used to rectify lapses within the regional body.

Lauding Bangladesh for its role in conceptualizing the dream of the far-reaching inter-governmental initiative which was inked on 8h December in1985 in Dhaka, Ambassador Rodrigo noted the role of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry in keeping the economic fabric of the region active.

Acknowledging that there is no consensual decision as to when and where the 19th summit will be take place following the cancellation of the Islamabad summit last year, he noted that the corporate and industrial sector of the region had largely managed to ignore the obstructions within SAARC to pursue economic benefits while other dimensions such as cultural, academic and literary links are also avenues that are being explored despite the threats of terrorism and political stalemate.

Dr. Syed Rifaat Hussain, Professor and Head of Department of the Government Policy and Public Administration of the National University of Science and Technology, spoke on the Indus Water Treaty and how the increasing scarcity of this natural resource is impacting the well-being of both India and Pakistan through diverse geo economic factors.

Referring to the fundamentals of this agreement which is the control over the three “eastern” rivers, the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej given to India, and the three “western” rivers, the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum,  which was to Pakistan, Dr. Hussain spoke of the mechanisms set in place in case issues arose in the precarious process of sharing the waters of Pakistan’s rivers that flow through India.

“The issue of sharing water resources between India and Pakistan cropped up in the immediate aftermath of the India - Pakistan partition. The question that arose was who should have what percentage of water and the treaty laid down a conflict resolution mechanism as to what should be done in case a conflict arose,” Dr. Hussain said, citing the structured aspects of mediation laid by the Indus Water Commission, a bilateral commission of officials from India and Pakistan to ensure that the goals of the Indus Water Treaty are managed with ongoing dialogue and exchange of data to resolve matters.

Dr. Hussain maintained however that in the current context there is the concern by Pakistan that India persists on building dams, mainly around the Kashmir area, without any consultation with Pakistan.

Again, what was stressed upon was engagement without enmity, for the mutual benefit of Pakistan and India.

Concerns relating to population growth and challenges of climate change were connected by Dr. Hussain to the scarcity of water, once an ample resource of Pakistan which he warned was fast depleting, transforming the country into a water-scarce nation.

The challenges of climate change and the poor drainage in the river Indus contributed to the issues concerning water, he noted.

“India and Pakistan cannot go to war over water. Like all critical resources, water is a zero sum issue.

If war is not the option then dialogue and negotiation is the only alternative left,” Dr. Hussain emphasized, noting that in the past 10 years India and Pakistan has been trapped in a deadlock because of a lack of dialogue and trust.

“India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring cross border terrorism  and that unless cross border terrorism is stopped there will be no talks and meanwhile the water issue has to be resolved because if there is a possibility of conflict, water is a key factor,” Dr, Hussain explained.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL), speaking on global challenges to South Asia, drew on the British era of colonization, its divide and rule policies and the socio-political impacts in the South Asian region that are connected to current evolving global contexts.

Drawing attention to the new world order he noted the interesting paradox of how the United States, the leader of globalization, is speaking of nationalism and how China which spoke of nationalism is today speaking of globalization.

“The first challenge in the face of South Asia is this changing order,” he said and drew a question mark over the possible further accentuation of South Asia’s poverty if the United States decides to take back the outsourced jobs of South Asia.

Abeyagoonasekera also spoke of the need for South Asia to increase its inter regional trade and to collectively keep in mind that bilateral ties can flourish despite multilateral blocks. He asserted that free movement across borders has to be a priority to ensure that this happens.

He also noted that South Asia could turn to technocracy; a model operated by technical experts as China has done, proceeding thereby in moving millions out of poverty, in a similar manner as Singapore.

Ikram Sehgal, Pakistani defence analyst, security expert and retired Pakistan army officer who was the first Pakistani Prisoner of War to escape from a POW camp in India in 1971 after being taken prisoner while fighting in the Bangladesh war of independence, said that SAARC as envisioned by Bangladesh had not fully come into existence.

Referring to allegations of India’s actions in Kashmir he maintained that “You cannot have people dying or blinded by pellets every day, and then call them terrorists.” However he was quick to add that “this does not mean we are saints in Pakistan.”

“It is easy to condemn outright once something happens but the challenge is to turn these people towards the good in an endeavour where we look towards a future with no confrontation,” he said.

Analyzing the South Asian economy as a ‘complementary economy,’ where the production of one particular item would need multiple resources from different South Asian countries, he spoke for the unity of the region for the sake of its mutual socio-economic well being.

Meanwhile, time will speak of the will and strength of South Asia to realize that divided it will fall into the bottomless pit of suspicion and distrust and united it will see in each other only temporarily estranged brothers.