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Politics & Policy

The 11th SAARC summit

There is a positive change in the approach of the members of the SAARC

Jan-14 - 20, 2002

The 11th SAARC summit concluded on Monday last in the Nepalese capital with the adoption of the Kathmandu Declaration, inter alia, agreeing on the process of political consultations for fostering good neighbourly relations, relieving tensions and building confidence, besides creating a better understanding and appreciation of each other's problems and perceptions.

The South Asian leaders also agreed to devote more resources to battle the scourge of terrorism and poverty. It noted that terrorism is a crime against humanity and a threat to the security, stability and development of the region. They also pledged to establish a free trade area in the region and agreed to finalise a draft treaty by the end of 2002.

The concept of 'political consultations' as a mean to relieve mutual tension and to promote interstate relations among the member countries is, of course, a new phenomenon for the SAARC as deliberations on bilateral issues were hitherto forbidden under its Charter. The inclusion of this concept in the final document issued at the end of the Kathmandu summit will certainly mark a breakthrough in ushering in a new era of peace, harmony, security and stability in the South Asian region. SAARC will hopefully afford a regular forum to the member states now to interact on issues of bilateral concern, which will turn it into an effective and viable institution, capable of leading the region towards progress and prosperity like ASEAN and European Union.

It is really encouraging to note a positive change in the approach of the seven member nations of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Coming in the wake of what had earlier appeared like a make or break event the strongly affirmative contents of the Kathmandu Declaration issued at the end of the overly postponed 11th Summit of the 16-year-old regional grouping, will sound, indeed, incredible. The big difference seems to have been made, this time, does not relate only to smooth sailing of its deliberations, but also to the added sense of purpose as discernible in the far-reaching decisions arrived at there. In fact, the ban on flight of Pakistani planes in Indian air space, on the eve of the Summit. So much so that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had to make it to Kathmandu from a detour, via Beijing. It certainly had tended to create doubts about the prospect of the moot taking place. Nevertheless, it ended up in a nail-biting start, which had to be put off till another day because of the delay in his arrival due to bad weather.

However, held in an environment of unprecedented uncertainties as further compounded by an unnerving stand-off between India and Pakistan, two of its most prominent members, the Summit will appear to have made history by the singleness of purpose displayed by the Heads of State and government of the participating nations. With record heavy concentration of troops along their borders and outbreak of a real war looking imminent, it was nothing short of a miracle that attention remained focused on the accumulated challenges and on the need of catching up with the fast changing global economic scenario. This, of course, has reference to the salient features of the Kathmandu Declaration, which certainly depicted maturing of ideas and attitudes, as compared to SAARC's performance so far as a regional grouping. For the member States resolved in the Declaration to an adequately phased and planned process, ultimately aimed at establishing a South Asian Economic Union, while calling for a number of initiatives in that direction. Reference, in this regard, may also be made to their reaffirmation of commitment to fostering good neighbourly relations, relieving tensions and building confidence, promoting mutual trust and understanding, peace, stability and amity, besides accelerating socio-economic cooperation.

The fact that SAARC could not hold its annual summit for over three years primarily because of relations between Pakistan and India is actually an affirmation of the Pakistani assertion that the SAARC Charter needs to incorporate bilateral and political issues within its purview. In fact, SAARC has been hostage to Pakistan-India relations from day one. From its formation in 1985 through 1990, SAARC saw an informal divide between a Pakistan-led anti-India 'Gang of Four' including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The regional environment changed with the demise of General Zia, the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh and Nepal and return of the Indian forces battling the Tamil insurgents in Sri Lanka changing the regional environment. Anti-Indian sentiment initially knit the smaller South Asian states together. It was in 1989 that India had imposed an economic blockade of landlocked Nepal as a punitive measure for its temerity in buying Chinese weaponry.

From 1990 onwards, with the insurgency in Kashmir taking centre-stage in Pakistan-India relations, SAARC was sidelined, with instability in Pakistan during 1993-1996 and in India during 1996-98 ensuring that the focus was either on Kashmir or domestic politics. SAARC however provides a forum for leaders to meet at least once a year, helping to build mutual rapport and confidence. The bonhomie between Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi was forged at the Islamabad SAARC Summit in December 1988, while India first agreed to discuss Kashmir as a disputed issue with Pakistan during the meeting in the Male SAARC Summit in May 1997 between Prime Ministers Inder Kumar Gujral and Muhammad Nawaz Sharif.

General Musharraf's somewhat surprising and spontaneous handshake with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was a gesture rich in symbolism, which helped defuse tensions between Pakistan and India. In many ways, such symbolism is reflective of the real status of SAARC, since it "still lacks in substance despite its existence for the last 15 years. It is thus not surprising that General Musharraf also raised the issue of the SAARC Forum serving to facilitate discussion and resolution of political and other contentious issues among the members.