South-South Cooperation: The Progress of SAARC in the Current Global Context

COLOMBO, Apr 11 2012 (IPS) - The Declaration adopted at the 17th Summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in Addu City, Maldives (November 2011), reiterated “the importance of comprehensive cooperation” to promote “effective linkages and connectivity for greater movement of people, enhanced investment and trade in the region”.

Equally, SAARC leaders were “mindful of the plurality of cultures and diversities within the region “. Promotional material projected SAARC extending from Earth’s highest mountains to its deepest seas, “across 100 languages, 10 major religions, one-fifth of world population”.

Progress towards SAARC’s central objective , a South Asian Economic Union by 2020, is slow, despite agreements already adopted, respectively on Preferential Trading, and on Free Trading. Obstacles are not exclusively bloated “sensitive lists”, non-tariff barriers, and restricted passage across disputed/sensitive borders.

All eight SAARC countries– India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan – are committed to democratic governance.

Given historical religious, cultural and ethnic differences, intra-regional economic disparities and lingering legacies of the colonial past, Central Governments are unable to control diverse political groups within their territories affecting neighbouring states.

At the UN, Indian Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh frankly conceded that “growing assertion of separate identities and ethnic, cultural and religious intolerance threaten our development efforts and cooperation to combat terrorism”.

In March, at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Geneva, India supported a US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka, feeling that “concern should be addressed, so that Tamil people in Sri Lanka can get justice and lead a life of dignity “.

Asked by reporters of “a possibility of (separatist) Tamil Eelam” establishing in Sri Lanka, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister , Karunanidhi replied that, for him, “that is the Goal”. That “goal” pursued with murderous violence by the terrorist “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE) never had the support of a majority of Sri Lanka Tamils. India supported the resolution, inter alia, due to “Coalition Compulsions”.

However, India amended the resolution, so that UN involvement in Sri Lanka would be only “in consultation with, and concurrence” of Sri Lanka’s Government. Questions of accountability and reconciliation are, of course, for Sri Lankans to work out .

The Bhutan SAARC Summit (2010) set up the South Asia Forum (SAF) with “eminent persons of diverse backgrounds” functioning on “public-private partnership lines” to charter SAARC’s ” future course” .

At the first SAF meeting (September 2011, New Delhi ), official delegations, all at Ministerial level , included representatives of corporate sectors, economic research institutes, media, and civil society . The SAF, engaging vital non-Government inputs, is now institutionalized as a legitimate, functional operative organ of SAARC.

Advancing public-private partnership approaches, two preparatory meetings for the Addu Summit were held in Male and Kathmandu (October 2011). In Male, a former Secretary General of ASEAN and senior representatives of the European Union gave accounts of their own experiences as did, quite frankly, some retired, recycled SAARC Secretary-Generals.

An Outcome Document on Strengthening SAARC and its Institutional Mechanisms, based on emerging pragmatic proposals, was prepared, under Sri Lankan coordination, and submitted to the Addu Summit for its careful consideration and action.

At Addu, the Indian Prime Minister demonstrated India’s “special responsibility that flows from geography of the region and size of (her) economy and market”. He announced a notification, reducing items on India’s Sensitive List for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) under SAFTA, from 480 tariff lines to 25. Pakistan announced switching to a negative list regime for Indian products and granting Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India by end 2012.

India could then export about 6,800 items to Pakistan as against 1,950 at present. Indian External Affairs Minister Krishna welcomed this as “bringing economic content into political relationship”.

The Summit directed SAARC Finance Ministers to facilitate greater flows of financial capital and intra-regional investments now proceeding.

Connectivity in the SAARC services sector proceeds apace. The Summit called for conclusion of the Regional Railways Agreement and for a “demonstration run” of a container train linking Bangladesh, Nepal and India. The India-Sri Lanka Ferry Service will be regularized.

The SAARC SG is directed to finalise work for a wider Indian Ocean Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service. Aviation services and tourism are expanding .

Region-wide approaches on water issues, including water-shed management and on glacier melting was stressed by Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Gilani. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed practical coordination among co-riparians of Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins , facilitating integrated development of diminishing water resources to nourish agriculture and provide greater access to drinking water.

Beyond SAARC, India has achieved global status including through her “Shared Vision for the 21st Century” partnered with China, in what is projected as “The Asian Century”. Some US strategists now rate “the Indo-Pacific region” as a vital strategic area.

Whatever the emerging Strategic World Map , all nations need to confront grave extremities threatening their economies, environments, energy exigencies, emigration patterns, and extra-national non-traditional security.

These require SAARC cooperation with states beyond the region, particularly SAARC’s Observers : Australia, China, Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar, United States and European Union. The Addu Declaration has urged ” comprehensive review of all matters relating to engagement” with Observers.

In respect of global exigencies, human greed , environmental abuse, corporate laxity and excessive economic license seem to be fundamental causes. Corporate-czars like Madoff in the United States (and others, including SAARC-Czars like Sri Lankan Raj Rajaratnam ), made-off with millions.

At Addu , Bhutan’s Prime Minister attributed the planet’s flaws as “employing our genius and technology to extract more, and faster; sell, and consume more; waste, and pollute more; all in our singular aim for material gain and mistaken symbols of success”.

In New York’s Wall Street and other urban centres, mass demonstrations have been dominated by younger generations. Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, noted “a mood of urgency, even impatience… because a large influential part of our societies consist of young people, inspired by new ideas, looking forward with enthusiasm to promising futures.

They cannot wait long. Patience is not infinite”. Socio- economic disparities within SAARC , have bred frustration inciting revolt, revolution and terrorism, including in rural areas. Sri Lanka’s early recourse to poverty alleviation strategies in rural areas has been successful with the country ahead of all SAARC countries in terms of the UN Human Development Index (HDI).

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the world’s most traversed Ocean, provides East-West connectivity. It is rich in fisheries, oil, gas and mineral deposits. Indo-Sri Lanka cooperation proceeds in the IOR despite some bilateral issues.

Non-traditional security threats proliferate in the IOR including people-smuggling, gun-running, drug-trafficking, piracy and cyber crimes. Globalised criminal cartels craftily connive with residual rump LTTE groups in these activities. Cooperation within SAARC and beyond the region, is essential against these dangers. SAARC navies have consult often, including with other users of the IOR.

The Addu Declaration calls for action “to root out terrorism”, urging early conclusion of the UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, and ratification of the SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters.

In the current global scenario, SAARC’s field of operation needs to extend beyond South Asia to ensure security and sustainable development for all its people.

**NIHAL RODRIGO, formerly Secretary General of SAARC; Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary; Ambassador to China and Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

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