Despite the string of postponements since it began in 1985, and impacted byÂ last yearâ€™s â€˜cancellationâ€™ of its 19th summit scheduled to have taken place in the Pakistani capital of IslamabadÂ in November,Â 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 PakistanÂ jointlyÂ organized aÂ seminar, SAARC;Â its impediments & Way Forward, at the HotelÂ GaladariÂ in Colombo on 6 February.
The seminarÂ focusedÂ on aspects of engagement and conflict management,Â leaving room forÂ follow-upÂ initiativesÂ that would includeÂ 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 â€“ or will – for discussion to solve them.
The issue ofÂ Kashmir, the major unresolved issue that exists in the SAARC region, was one of the key topicsÂ at the discussion, along withÂ other current dayÂ regional issues, includingÂ the Indus Water Treaty brokered between India and Pakistan by the World BankÂ and signed in 1960.
Although addressing seemingly insurmountableÂ disagreements that plague SAARC at present,Â centering mainlyÂ onÂ India and Pakistan, the seminarÂ proceedings placed emphasisÂ on sensitive engagement with India and other SAARC nationsÂ in orderÂ to break the current deadlock.
â€œWhile 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,â€ High Commissioner of Pakistan Â Maj. Gen. (R)Â SyedÂ 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 ensureÂ theÂ non-stalling of theÂ dream and initiative of BangladeshÂ set in motionÂ in 1985.
â€œSAARC was one of the organizations thatÂ had been started for a better life for theÂ citizensÂ of South Asia. Article 3 of the SAARC charter declares thatÂ â€œHeads of State and government shall meet once a year or more often, as and when necessary by the member states,â€ the Pakistan High Commissioner said,Â drawing attention to the many postponements of the annual summits andÂ 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 CommissionerÂ stressed.
Secretary of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence andÂ Chairman of the Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka, Eng. KarunasenaÂ Hettiarachchi,Â in his addressÂ drew attention to the poverty of the region, using examplesÂ of Singapore and Korea to look at howÂ these countriesÂ haveÂ overcomeÂ poverty and alsoÂ examinedÂ the transition of South Asia as a regionÂ battling terrorism, highlighting theÂ need to address the root causes of radicalization of youth. Referring to ISIS and itsÂ influence across borders as seenÂ inÂ lastÂ yearâ€™s terror attack in Bangladesh,Â HettiarachchiÂ called forÂ the region to unite in combating terrorism.Â He also statedÂ thatÂ theÂ prioritization of development goals ofÂ South Asia was a key collective factor for the region and that SAARC shouldÂ draw on what it could learn from other regional organizationsÂ which are making progressive changes.
AmbassadorÂ NihalÂ Rodrigo, Former Sri Lanka Foreign SecretaryÂ and SecretaryÂ General of SAARC from 1999 to 2002 spoke of the need ofÂ honest introspectionÂ inÂ working towards takingÂ SAARCÂ forwardÂ as an organization created for the well being of its people.
He noted that insights from countries which have observer status within SAARC,Â which includes the European Union, Australia, China, Japan and the United States,Â could used to rectify lapsesÂ withinÂ the regional body.
Lauding BangladeshÂ for its role in conceptualizing the dream ofÂ the far-reaching inter-governmental initiative which was inked on 8hÂ December in1985 in Dhaka, Ambassador Rodrigo noted the role of the SAARC Chamber of CommerceÂ 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 takeÂ placeÂ following the cancellation of the Islamabad summit last year, he noted that the corporate andÂ industrialÂ sectorÂ ofÂ the region had largely managed to ignore the obstructions within SAARCÂ to pursue economic benefitsÂ while other dimensions such as cultural,Â academic and literaryÂ links are also avenuesÂ that are being explored despite the threats of terrorism and political stalemate.
Dr.Â SyedÂ RifaatÂ Hussain, Professor and Head of Department of the Government Policy and Public Administration of the National University of Science and Technology, spokeÂ on the Indus Water TreatyÂ and how the increasing scarcity of this natural resource is impacting the well-being of both India and PakistanÂ throughÂ diverse geo economic factors.
Referring to the fundamentals of this agreement which is the control over the three “eastern” rivers, theÂ Beas, theÂ RaviÂ and theÂ SutlejÂ given to India,Â and the threeÂ “western” rivers,Â theÂ Indus, theÂ ChenabÂ and theÂ Jhelum,Â Â which wasÂ to Pakistan, Dr.Â HussainÂ 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.
â€œThe issue of sharing water resources between India and Pakistan cropped up in the immediate aftermath of the IndiaÂ -Â Pakistan partition. The question that arose was who should have what percentage of waterÂ and the treatyÂ laidÂ down a conflict resolution mechanism as to what should be done in case aÂ conflict arose,â€ Dr.Â HussainÂ said,Â citing theÂ structured aspects of mediationÂ laidÂ by the Indus Water Commission, a bilateral commission of officials from India and Pakistan toÂ ensure that the goals of the Indus Water Treaty areÂ managed with ongoing dialogue and exchange of data to resolve matters.
Dr.Â HussainÂ maintained however thatÂ in the current contextÂ there isÂ theÂ concernÂ by PakistanÂ that India persists on building dams, mainly aroundÂ the Kashmir area, without any consultation with Pakistan.
Again, what was stressed upon was engagement without enmity, for the mutual benefit of PakistanÂ and India.
Concerns relating to population growth and challenges of climate change were connectedÂ by Dr.Â HussainÂ to the scarcity of water, once an ample resource of Pakistan whichÂ he warned wasÂ fastÂ depleting, transforming the country into a water-scarce nation.
TheÂ challenges of climate change andÂ the poor drainage in the river IndusÂ contributed to the issues concerning water, he noted.
â€œIndia 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,â€ Dr.Â HussainÂ emphasized, noting that inÂ the past 10 years India and PakistanÂ has been trapped in aÂ deadlock becauseÂ of a lack of dialogue and trust.
â€œIndia accuses Pakistan of sponsoring cross border terrorism Â and thatÂ unless cross border terrorism is stopped thereÂ will be no talksÂ and meanwhile the water issue has to be resolved becauseÂ if there is a possibility of conflict,Â water is a key factor,â€ Dr,Â HussainÂ explained.
AsangaÂ Abeyagoonasekera,Â Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri LankaÂ (INSSSL),Â speaking onÂ global challenges to South Asia,Â 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,Â theÂ leaderÂ of globalization, is speaking of nationalismÂ and how China which spoke of nationalism isÂ todayÂ speaking ofÂ globalization.
â€œThe first challenge in the face of South Asia is this changing order,â€Â he said and drew a question mark over the possible further accentuation of South Asiaâ€™sÂ poverty if the United States decides to take back the outsourced jobs of South Asia.
AbeyagoonasekeraÂ also spoke of the need for SouthÂ AsiaÂ to increaseÂ itsÂ inter regional tradeÂ and to collectively keep in mind that bilateral tiesÂ can flourish despite multilateral blocks. He asserted that free movementÂ across borders has toÂ beÂ aÂ priority to ensure that this happens.
He also noted that South AsiaÂ could turn to technocracy;Â aÂ modelÂ operated by technical expertsÂ as ChinaÂ has done, proceeding therebyÂ inÂ movingÂ millionsÂ out of poverty, in a similar manner as Singapore.
IkramÂ Sehgal,Â PakistaniÂ defenceÂ analyst,Â security expert andÂ retired Pakistan army officer whoÂ 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 thatÂ SAARCÂ as envisioned by Bangladesh had not fully come into existence.
Referring to allegations of Indiaâ€™s actions in Kashmir he maintained thatÂ â€œYou cannot have people dying or blinded by pelletsÂ every day, and then call them terrorists.â€Â However he was quick to addÂ thatÂ â€œthis does not meanÂ we are saints in Pakistan.â€
â€œIt is easy to condemn outright once somethingÂ happensÂ butÂ the challenge is to turn these people towards the good in anÂ endeavourÂ where we look towards aÂ future withÂ no confrontation,â€ he said.
Analyzing the South Asian economy as aÂ â€˜complementaryÂ economy,â€™ where the production of one particular item would need multiple resources fromÂ 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 toÂ realizeÂ that divided it willÂ fallÂ into the bottomless pit of suspicion and distrust and united it will see in each other onlyÂ temporarilyÂ estranged brothers.