It has been observed that ever since its inception in 1985, SAARC has not functioned as smoothly and as productively as many other regional organizations, like the EU, ASEAN, SCO, etc. This is because its two biggest members, namely India and Pakistan, do not see eye to eye on many major issues. This is very unfortunate as South Asia is one of the most backward regions in the world – just a little better than sub-Saharan Africa. The major objective behind the formation of SAARC was to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improve their quality of life, accelerate their economic growth, social progress and cultural development, promote and strengthen their collective self-reliance and contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of regional problems.
It was in this spirit that Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi recently called for removing the “artificial obstacles” in the way of regular functioning of SAARC and reiterated Pakistan’s readiness to host the 19th SAARC summit, which was to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 but was cancelled when India pulled out. India had alleged then that an attack on an Indian army camp at Uri in Kashmir had been master-minded by Pakistan. Along with India, other member countries, such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan had also decided not to attend the summit.
The spirit of regionalism is what binds the countries of South Asia and SAARC offers a viable platform for the purpose. Prime Minister Imran Khan, after coming to power in 2018, had tried to capitalize on the goodwill generated by the initial contacts made between Islamabad and New Delhi. However, his friendly gestures failed to break the ice between the two countries. In fact, India’s stance became so hardened that it deprived Jammu & Kashmir of its special status by revocation of Article 350 in August 2019 and imposed an un-ending curfew in the State. If such is the attitude of the largest member of SAARC, then the prime objectives under which the body was formed have been brought to naught. The main rationale behind the formation of SAARC was promoting mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of regional problems. In the midst of India’s intractable attitude, these are certainly not being well-served.
The functioning of SAARC has continued to be adversely affected ever since the Islamabad summit was cancelled and most of the bodies comprising the regional organization are in limbo. It is to be hoped that the artificial obstacles created by one of its members in SAARC’s forward movement would be removed and that it will be enabled to again function as an effective instrument of regional cooperation. That is why it is also important to faithfully follow the UN Charter and implement the UN Security Council Resolutions. Any unilateral and illegal measures to change the status of disputed territories in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions must be condemned.
Like so many other regions of the world, when the countries of South Asia decided to come together under the banner of SAARC, their aim was to reinforce regional and geopolitical union of states. Their thinking was that SAARC would be a formidable organization as it comprised 3% of the world’s area, 21% of the world’s population and, as of 2019, represented about 4.21% (US$3.67 trillion) of the global economy. The region covered by SAARC has a combined population of some 1.5 billion. In this background, this body has a big opportunity to reduce poverty in the region. As it is poised to play an important role in growing international relations, its member states would be well-advised to not queer the pitch with bi-lateral issues. They should work instead in the greater interest of humanity and take advantage of the low-hanging fruit of progress and prosperity for their people.