Realising SAARC’s true potential
The 15th SAARC Summit is taking on the proportions of an MGM
production. Let us all hope that President Rajapaksa and his advisors
undertake a reality check and use this opportunity for him to go down in
history as the SAARC Chairman who transformed the organisation from a
pious talk shop that does not comply with conventions and agreements,
creating an organisation which has meaning for the people of South Asia,
as was conceived at its inception.
Prasad Kariyawasam, Additional Secretary, Foreign Ministry and
Media Co-ordinator for SAARC addressing a media conference on
It was way back in 1980 that the idea of regional cooperation between
the countries of South Asia was conceived. Thereafter, in 1981,
consultations were held in Colombo by the foreign secretaries of the
This meeting was followed by the first meeting of foreign ministers,
who met in Delhi in 1983 and adopted the Declaration on South Asian
Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
They also launched the Integrated Programme of Action, which covered
five areas for cooperation. The five areas for cooperation they agreed
upon were agriculture, health, meteorology, telecommunications and rural
The first meeting at heads of state level was held in December 1985.
It was at this summit that the SAARC Charter was formally adopted.
Twenty-two years have elapsed since then and 14 times, the heads of
state have met and it is perhaps pertinent to even briefly examine what
has been achieved in terms of the objectives the leaders set for
themselves and for SAARC.
The principal objectives they set for themselves and for SAARC were
as follows: 1. To promote economic, social and cultural development of
our peoples and to improve the quality of their lives.
2. To promote collaboration in economic, social, cultural technical
and scientific fields.
3. To promote mutual trust and understanding among the peoples of
4. To promote collaboration among themselves in international forums
in matters of common interest.
5. To promote and strengthen collective self reliance among the
countries of South Asia.
It had also been decided that all SAARC decisions be arrived at by
consensus and, most important of all, that bilateral and contentious
issues would be excluded from the deliberations of SAARC.
Institutional set-up The institutional set-up established (no doubt
the work of the foreign secretaries) could not have been bettered. It
was comprehensive in terms of achieving the goals the leaders had set
for our countries.
They were as follows: The highest authority of the association would
rest with the heads of state, as with ASEAN and the EU. There was to be
a Council of Ministers who would be responsible for the formulation of
policies, reviewing progress and deciding on new areas of progress. The
Council was expected to meet twice a year.
The next important institution was to be the Standing Committee,
comprising foreign secretaries of the Member States. Their
responsibility was to monitor and coordinate programmes. It was to meet
as often as was deemed necessary and to report to the Council of
All important committee
Seven Technical Committees were also established in terms of the work
involved with regard to the ‘Integrated Programme of Action,’ which was
launched at the first meeting of the foreign ministers, which was held
in Delhi in 1983.
It was also decided to establish the following Regional Centres, with
each such centre to be managed by a Governing Board; 1. Regional
Agricultural Information Centre 2. SAARC Documentation Centre 3. SAARC
Human Resources Development Centre 4. SAARC Tuberculosis Prevention
Centre 5. SAARCC Meteorological Research Centre.
An all important committee to institutionalise regional economic
cooperation was established. This Committee on Economic Cooperation was
to comprise of the secretaries of commerce and trade of the member
states. The task of this Committee was to strengthen and enhance
inter-governmental cooperation in the fields of trade and economic
From this Committee emerged the SAARC Preferential Trade initiative,
or the SAPTA. The framework agreement was signed at the Dhaka Summit and
came into operation in 1983. I am reliably informed that hardly any
worthwhile progress has been made due to the huge differences in the
levels of economic and industrial development of the member states.
Despite the lack of progress in SAPTA it was decided at the 10th
summit in Colombo in 1998 to set up a committee to draft a comprehensive
treaty to create a free trade area within the region. Quite ambitious
It has also been proposed by the Standing Committee to adopt an
Agreement on the Promotion and Protection of Investment in the region, a
most laudable initiative to promote confidence, which is vital if
foreign direct investment of any significant magnitude is to take place.
A number of other similar valuable initiatives we also taken, such as
the need to support the enhancement of the financial systems of SAARC
countries through building institutional capacity and the need to
establish a network of researchers on global, financial and economic
issues and developments, to help analyse and assist member states of
SAARC to face global financial and economic developments. If this
network is indeed functioning, it should prove a boon to the member
That would be one of the few positive achievements of SAARC. The only
other two initiatives worthy of mention to my mind are the Social
Charter and the Poverty Alleviation project.
It had been decided at the 10th Summit held in Colombo to establish a
‘Social Charter’ for the SAARC countries to accelerate social progress
and promote active collaboration among member states. The securing of
the rights of women and children has been the foremost consideration and
has received the highest priority.
Much useful work appears to have been done by Technical Committee on
‘Women in Development.’ The Committee has been concerned with the
trafficking of women and children within and between countries and
member countries have signed a Regional Convention on Combating the
Crime of Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution when they
met at Kathmandu in January 2002, but as to whether domestic legislation
has been enacted by all member states in line with this Convention is
Though the development and well-being of children within our
countries has been considered a priority area for SAARC and has been on
the agenda at a number of ministerial meetings and an MoU has been
signed with UNICEF, it is doubtful as to whether our countries have been
implementing the decision of the ministers or acting in terms of the MoU.
Elimination of poverty
The other important SAARC initiative was one championed by President
Premadasa, at the sixth SAARC Summit in Colombo in 1991, namely the
elimination of poverty. It had been decided to establish an independent
South Asia Commission on Poverty Alleviation.
The Summits that followed welcomed the initiative and expressed their
commitment to eradicate poverty in South Asia through an agenda of
action which would include a strategy for social mobilisation, a policy
of decentralised agricultural development, village awakening (Gam Udawa),
small-scale labour intensive industrialisation and last but not least,
After the passing away of President Premadasa, it appeared that only
lip service was being paid to the programme by Member States; the
Poverty Alleviation programme is now apparently being implemented by the
UNDP. Any national poverty alleviation programmes don’t appear to be in
SAARC has also a number of agreements which our countries have
entered into but as to whether these agreements have had impact on the
peoples of our countries is another matter; among them is the Food
It was decided to establish the Food Security Reserve in 1987 and
agreements were signed but I doubt whether it is in existence today. The
Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism was signed in 1987
and has been ratified by all member states but as to whether the member
states are abiding by its commitments is another matter. Meanwhile, I
understand that a ‘Comprehensive Convention on the Suppression of
Terrorism’ is being contemplated!
There is also a Convention on Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and
the Conventions referred to earlier, relating to women and children. All
this is, no doubt, an impressive record on paper but as to whether these
Conventions are being implemented is another matter.
The question today is whether SAARC is a mere talk shop which has
provided officials, ministers and heads of state an opportunity to
gather every year and exchange pleasantries. After 22 and 14 Summits, I
do believe the peoples of our countries have a right to demand an audit
and take remedial action to make the regional association meaningful to
It has been pointed out by no less a person than our present
President that the asymmetry within SAARC has not been helpful.
President Rajapaksa’s description of South Asia was as follows: “A
region of contrasts with significant disparities in gross domestic
product, income levels, national resources and population.”
India’s towering presence is seen by some countries as a threat, but
then as Professor G.L. Peiris recently stated, India can do nothing
about its size, resources and population. He stated that this should be
seen more as an opportunity than a threat.
Most unfortunately, this threat perception exists in the minds of
many as would be seen from recent statements by the JVP, which has
accused India of seeking to make Lanka a state of India. There is
nothing that can be done about that, other than perhaps for India to
include the Gujral Doctrine in its Constitution.
The Gujral Doctrine
For the sake of record, permit me to set out the five cardinal
principles of the Gujral Doctrine. In the words of Gujral himself,
“India does not seek reciprocity but gives all that it can in good faith
and trust. Second, no South Asian country should allow the use of its
territory against the interest of a fellow country in the region. Third,
that all of us in South Asia must respect each others’ territorial
integrity and sovereignty. And finally, we should settle all disputes
through peaceful bilateral negotiations.”
These were the five principles of the Gujral Doctrine. As he himself
stated, “These five principles, if scrupulously adhered to, are bound to
achieve a fundamental recasting of the regional relationships,
including, I venture to state, a radical change in the tormented
relationship between India and Pakistan, in a friendly and cooperative
Most unfortunately for the countries of South Asia, this doctrine was
abandoned after Gujral left office. I venture to state that had the
Gujral principles been followed by India, SAARC would have today been
more than a reality, for India would then never have been perceived as a
threat, but as an opportunity.
Considering SAARC’s tremendous potential, India, which is bigger in
every respect than the rest of us put together, has indeed a role and a
responsibility to move SAARC forward. From the record set out above, it
would be seen that though SAARC has an impressive record of
‘achievements’ on paper, it has had little impact on the people of South
Asian countries, unlike ASEAN or the EU.
Lack of progress
The lack of any serious commitment to cooperate, even on the vital
issue of terrorism, despite the much touted SAARC Convention on
Terrorism, arms smuggling, the narcotics trade, human smuggling, and
money laundering is evidence of a lack of real progress.
My colleague Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo has in a speech recently
referred to the fact that South Asia as a region cannot develop in
isolation, particularly in a globalised world. As a regional grouping,
we need not only to endeavour to reach common positions on global issues
commonly affecting us, but also to reach out and open up to the rest of
Asia and the world beyond.
Therefore, inviting countries such as Japan, China, the US and the EU
as Observers is indeed a step in the right direction. Let us hope that
at least these ‘Observer Countries’ would be able to assist us to make a
reality of regional cooperation and make a success of SAARC.