Divided we stagger


JUL 15 –

The 18th Saarc summit, scheduled to be held in 2013, is certain to be delayed.  Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the summit meeting of the head of governments would at least have reminded the world about the presence of Saarc but this time, even stating their presence seems to be a difficult task for member states. Saarc today has become an example of what a regional body should not be. However, in the wake of the delayed summit, it would be beneficial to analyse some of the paradoxes of South Asian regionalism.


The premise of starting an International Organisation (IO), whether regional or global, is primarily created by states. Whether the states determine the role of IO or if the IO is able to shape the behaviour of states differ between realist and liberal schools of thought. However, states have a tendency to avoid responsibility for their failure by assigning it to the IO while crediting themselves for any success. This is apparent when Saarc is criticised by every South Asian country but no singular state is ready to acknowledge the fact that it is not the organisation but the states that created the organisation that have failed to set up an effective regional mechanism.


After establishing the responsibility of states to the IO, another problem exists again in differentiating one state’s role and responsibility for the failure or success of Saarc. In this regard, if we survey the public opinion of smaller countries, the majority of them blindly blame the two bigger members— India and Pakistan—whereas the two bigger countries are still pre-occupied with their establishment biases towards the smaller states. India considers that strengthening Saarc would mean enhancing the bandwagon of smaller states allying against it whereas Pakistan considers the same to mean strengthening India and its neighbours (including Afghanistan) to gain leverage against it and isolating it in the region.

Though the bigger states have always expressed their commitment to South Asian regionalism, their practices have shown that India considers a possible membership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to be more important than Saarc. Similarly, Pakistan considers itself more inclined toward Islamic solidarity with the central Asian countries rather than with South Asians.

On the other hand, the geographical, as well as economic dominance, of a single state has led smaller states to fear that they are being dominated. Whatever the intention, Saarc was established and it was an appreciable step. But for more than 25 years of its history, only 17 annual summits have been held. It is not only the bigger states that are responsible for this. Many times, smaller countries have also paralysed annual summits because of their internal problems. The inability of Bhutan to host the summit meeting up until 2010 (Bhutan hosted the 16th Saarc summit in 2010 for the first time) or the present case when the annual summit is cancelled because of the Maldives’ and Nepal’s need to conduct elections are just a few examples.


Apart from the problems of commitment and intention, the next issue is of the implementation of the charter and summit declarations in good faith. Each time a summit is held, a declaration of many new ideas are adopted unanimously but they are rarely followed up in the next summit. It is not only the public but even policymakers—who will be participating in the next summit—seem to have forgotten the extent to which the Addu Declaration of 2011 has progressed. The public is not aware of how much has been followed up to the Addu commitment of concluding the regional railway agreement among Bangladesh-India and Nepal or implementing the Thimpu Declaration on climate change. If Saarc is to advance beyond a simple ‘wine and dine’ summit, progress reports on past declarations should be released, along with the new declarations every year.

The charter has also envisioned ways of implementing the decisions taken at the summit level or at the council of ministers level. The standing committee, action committee or any other technical committees are formed for the implementation of decisions and the Secretariat is only there for coordination. In theory, it seems that there is nothing wrong with this, but in practice, Saarc today has more than a dozen areas of cooperation, ranging from agriculture to energy, finance, environment, poverty alleviation, education and more. This makes implementation and coordination much more difficult.

What next ?

It would be too cynical to say that Saarc is simply a hub of problems. Proclaiming its failure by comparing with the European or ASEAN experience would mean neglectling South Asian peculiarities. While regionalism in Europe developed in a society united through Christianity, South Asia has the bitter past of being divided along religious and cultural lines.

Similarly, the ASEAN experience also shows that regionalism is often backed by a global power whereas our regionalism has developed by the suspension of even the regional power.

Despite the exclusion of bilateral issues in the agenda, they have formed an important part beyond the framework in various informal ways. Saarc has been able to institutionalise a web of regional organisations and regional agreements embedding certain principles and guide the behaviour of states on the same basis.  Saarc today deserve fair criticism along with an appreciation of its hard-earned achievements.

The interest in Saarc of friendly states beyond the region is growing as seen by the increasing number of observer states in the summit. Nepal proposed the membership of China in 2010 though this was vetoed by India. However, smaller states should not consider the Chinese entry as an attempt to counter India nor should India see China’s possible membership with suspicion. It would be much better if Saarc could gain the leadership of the two global rising powers and if it could be a platform to harmonise the interests of these two powers, helping them work together for the Asian century.

Lamsal has a Masters in International Relations from South Asian University while Raule is a journalist with Kantipur Publications.

dinesh_lamsal@hotmail.com   –               naren.raule@gmail.com

Posted on: 2013-07-16 07:29

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