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#1442, 27 July 2004
SAARC Should Stay Clear Of Bilateral Issues
Mukul Kumar

The bonhomie created by the 12th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit has been further boosted by the recent decision to hold the 13th SAARC summit in Bangladesh in January next year. Though SAARC does not have much achievement to boast of in its existence of nearly two decades, the organization now appears to be overcoming some of the pitfalls. This optimism probably encouraged the SAARC foreign ministers' meeting in Islamabad to confer the first ever SAARC Award on late president Ziaur Rahman in recognition of his vision and initiative for the establishment of this regional entity. However, the Pakistani attempt to include bilateral issues on SAARC agenda threatened to upset the applecart of SAARC.


When SAARC was formed nearly two decades ago, not many people were optimistic about it. Skeptics wrote it off as a talking shop, having nothing more to do than hold meetings, some of which did not always eventuate. In the nearly twenty years of existence of SAARC, the January 2005 Summit will be only the thirteenth. Indo-Pakistan rivalry always loomed large over SAARC and some of the summit meetings were postponed because of this. But, despite a number of pitfalls, SAARC has managed to survive.


SAARC has also been criticized for non-perfomnce in comparison to other regional organisations like the ASEAN. SAARC does not in any way bear comparison with ASEAN because of certain fundamental differences between these two organisations. It must be borne in mind that ASEAN's birth was motivated by extra regional compulsions, wherein there was a definite perception of regional threat. There also was external input in the security perceptions of the ASEAN states. The threat came to be defined both in terms of ideology as well as in substantive physical terms. Moreover, unlike in SAARC, there was a modicum of symmetry in ASEAN.


Fortunately for SAARC, need for physical security of the South Asian states had very little, if at all, to do with the conceptualisation of the regional body. In fact, the concept behind SAARC was 'collective self-reliance'. The motivations were internally generated which makes the need for its success all the more imperative. But the state of India-Pakistan relations regrettably stunted the momentum of SAARC.


Also, the fact that three of the countries of SAARC were a single political entity not so long ago, with shared history and values, combined with some sad experiences has had much to do with the wariness in their relationship that in turn affected performance of the Association. While some of the less confident wondered at the efficacy of an organisation composed of the poorest of the global indigents, SAARC's founding fathers put their confidence in the Association on their belief that even poverty, when shared, becomes more endurable.


While it is futile to blame any one member for less than satisfactory performance of SAARC, it would be worthwhile for our policy makers to delve into the reasons for our inability to exploit the full potentials of the regional organisation in the last twenty years. Obviously, SAARC could not gather momentum because of Indo-Pakistan rivalry. However, things changed considerably after the 12th SAARC Summit. The SAARC heads of state summit seven months earlier, also in Islamabad, was the setting for a breakthrough agreement between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and then Indian premier Atal Behari Vajpayee to resume talks after a 30-month hiatus and the 2002 confrontation that almost erupted into their fourth war.


Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said in his opening address to 25th Council of Ministers meeting, "SAARC has started to exude new confidence and its international profile has enhanced." It would be retrograde to involve this organization into discussing bilateral issues. There is a need to keep the organization functioning free from troubles. SAARC has already considerably widened its agenda. By bringing bilateral issues it will only complicate the present working of the organization. It will take away whatever dynamism the organization has managed to infuse in itself.


The Pakistani proposal to review the SAARC Charter could have only proved counter-productive. The bilateral issues can be discussed by holding bilateral meetings on the sidelines as is the practice at present. If the bilateral issues are brought on the SAARC agenda, it will once again bog down the organization in unnecessary squabbling.

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