SAARC Charter needs to be reviewed: Thapa
- Over the last 29 years, SAARC has looked at various issues of collective interest, identified problems and made a vast number of resolutions on very critical issues.
- History of SAARC goes along with nature of relationships between member states.
- The conventional thinking of one very big country and a number of small neighbours stalled the process.
- We need to focus on implementation of resolutions.
- You cannot label it as a failure because it has moved forward.
Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa is a former minister for Foreign Affairs. He has also served as Nepalese ambassador to the USA and India. Presently, he has been working as the coordinator of the advisory committee of the government for organizing the 18th SAARC Summit, which is being held on November 26 and 27 in Kathmandu. Against this background, Nandalal Tiwari of The Rising Nepal talked with Dr. Thapa on the achievements and weaknesses of SAARC.
What do you think are the points of achievement of SAARC?
Well, it has made some progress. The fact that there is SAARC in itself is sign of progress on collective thinking on the part of South Asian countries. Secondly, I think, over the 29 years, the institution was born and has evolved; it has looked at various issues of collective interest, identified problems and made a vast number of resolutions on very critical issues such as how to deal with terrorism, ensuring food security, how to promote trade within the region and to this they focused on expanding trade, how to enhance connectivity so that goods and services can travel freely between the member countries in the region and to that extent they stressed on infrastructure development in each of the member countries for collective good. Name any of these. These are very important resolutions and critical tools not only for cooperation among member states but also a vehicle for development in all member countries.
But, the history of SAARC goes along with the nature of relationship between the member states. They have not been always steady and even and there have been ups and downs. There have been unprecedented events, including war between the member countries. There have been political struggles in the member countries. For instance, Nepal went through a decade long insurgency, casting a reflection on our capacity to be an active member, partner. These realities are there. But they have cast the impression on the progress towards the regional and collective interests. But the fact that the organisation has survived so far and there have been periods when visionary leaders have advocated very strongly for the regional cooperation. I recall, as I was then ambassador to India, late Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral. His premiership was short-lived but he talked about non-reciprocal relationship with neighbouring countries and also tried to promote SAARC. Unfortunately, that honeymoon did not last long. He was out of power and then gradually the conventional thinking of one very big country and a number of small neighbours stalled the process. That is part of the history.
But now you see the beginning of ray of hope from a new thinking after elections in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, Pakistan and in Afghanistan, where not elections as such but negotiations solved the problems. Now, I think, these countries individually and independently on their own and also I think the initiatives taken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his announcement that India alone large as it is cannot assume the position of global power without the support of neighbouring countries. He has said that publicly many times and in different forums. There is a level of consistency in his saying. He is the prime minister of a very strong parliament with absolute majority. Recent developments such as some of the pacts signed between Nepal and India, be it at the private sector level or the government level, indicate maybe we are beginning to move toward regional agreements.
Going back again, issues have been discussed and identified, goals have been set by past Summits. But we need to focus on implementation of resolutions.
What points would you raise if you were asked to present the points of failure of the Association?
You cannot label it failure because things have moved forward. It is lack of progress. The agenda are there on the social, security, convention anti-terrorism issues, food security and other areas. It is just that we could not make progress as expected by the people. The point is you don't move faster enough, other regions in the world will continue to dominate the social, political and economic areas.
So, what are the reasons for the lack of progress as you said?
Basically, I would say that whatever we agree collectively under the umbrella of SAARC can get implemented only if the national budget or national plan and programmes give priority to those activities. If we agree collective and disagree separately then you are walking in a contradictory path. SAARC has lacked progress perhaps because we did not prioritise things at the national level that we agreed at the regional level as a priority area. And that is where each nation is failing. It is a collective failure, it is not one country failing and another country is achieving. No one has achieved. The other side of SAARC is non-governmental sector, the track two process. Various people made attempts to try to put up pressure on governments through the track two process. The intellectuals, experts getting together and trying to put up pressure on water resource, democratic front. On the trade side, the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry which is a federal structure with the national chapter. It played a key role in promoting SAPTA and SAFTA. Some of these institutions have taken back seat in recent years. They need to be activated. Unless there is support of citizens make it SAARC level and understating of exerts, intellectual, technical, business community is wider than there is in government because the government thinks in terms of politics whereas these agencies think about trade, industry, food security. So, there has been a setback in the level of communication at the level of non-governmental level. Some 20 or so ago when the SAARC was born, there was a desire for scholars, experts to move to different countries in search of common agenda and root. This needs also to be revived, strengthened and intensified.
What's the path SAARC should move on?
Well, there are two aspects, one they need to look deeply as to whether the Charter facilitates or retards the concept of common interest. Time has come to take a look at it a little more seriously. Secondly, on the implementation front, SAARC Secretariat needs to be revived, strengthened, made more professional rather than just an agent of the governments and that calls for a very careful study and restructuring so that they can monitor the progress and lack of progress. On the implementation side there is no one to oversee what is happening. So, the implementation part calls for strengthening of the Secretariat and making it more professional, not just agents of political parties or government.
Are you pointing at some provisions of SAARC Charter, for instance, the provision of unanimity for any decision?
Well, I am hinting at the possibility of a review. If we have not moved faster enough, it is up to the leaders to question why. And in the process of answering the questions, some positive thinking in terms of the review of the Charter is also called for. And the other part is, well, it is an important regional forum both for dialogue and promoting activities. Sometimes, it is not easy to find an item of common interest, for instance, if you are talking about developing water resources, there is nothing in common between Nepal and the Maldives, but if you are talking about Nepal, Bhutan, and India, because of physical connectivity, they have a stake. Similarly, if you are talking about water ways, Nepal has no role, the Maldives, India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka have a common interest. So there may be issues of interest at a lower level than the total SAARC membership. So, there is need to review and find out whether SAARC Charter can allow for sub-regional cooperation also. These are issues that need to be looked up to.
Over the last 29 years, SAARC has looked at various issues of collective interest, identified problems and made a vast number of resolutions on very critical issues.
History of SAARC goes along with nature of relationships between member states.
The conventional thinking of one very big country and a number of small neighbours stalled the process.
We need to focus on implementation of resolutions.
You cannot label it as a failure because it has moved forward.
There is a need to review and find out whether SAARC Charter can allow for sub-regional cooperation