SAARC Diplomacy–Beyond Rhetoric!

June 7, 2007 by  


By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

NEW DELHI- Despite being in existence since 1985, the diplomatic significance of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has till recently been largely confined to more of a stage show. Of late, however, SAARC countries have begun giving a new importance to implementing values shared by member-nations of developing this organization into a strong cooperation to benefit the entire region. The past week has been marked by SAARC member nations voicing their stands at various levels on measures necessary to making the organization more effective. Having hosted the 14th SAARC Summit this April, India is at present chair of the organization. SAARC members include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, Bhutan and Afghanistan.

What is noteworthy is that member nations have started considering forming a South Asian Parliament, to realize the full potential of South Asia. South Asian Parliament: Evolving South Asian Fraternity, was the theme of the concluding session of the two-day conference (June 2-3) of parliamentarians from SAARC region, held in Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), organized by South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA).

Addressing this session, Indian Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee said: “India is convinced that on foundations of its civilizational and commercial interlinkages, South Asian countries can work together to emerge as a major powerhouse of economic creativity and enterprise.” Emphasizing India’s aim to carry forward the theme of connectivity, he said: “We would try to focus on improving regional connectivity through upgrading trade, transport and telecommunication links; address issues relating to trade facilitation such as harmonization of customs procedures and standards; increase understanding through greater people to people contact, particularly among the youth, the civil society, cultural personalities, academics and parliamentarians.”

Earlier in the week, at the two-day meeting (May 29-30) of officials from SAARC countries, the subject was setting a South Asian University (SAU), to be housed in Delhi–aimed at creating a regional center of academic excellence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reportedly directed the Delhi government to allot 200 acres of land for the proposed university–SAU is likely to become a reality from the summer of 2009 with its first batch of enrolled students.

The importance of “connectivity” within SAARC was elaborated on at several levels at a two-day conference organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs and Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Delhi (June 1-2). The issues discussed included: — physical and infrastructural connectivities; economic connectivity; SAARC development fund; people-to-people and cultural connectivity; and the role of civil society in development of SAARC. During the session on people-to-people and cultural connectivity, chaired by Madeeha Gauhar, Artistic Director of the Lahore Ajoka Theatre, the formal inclusion of “culture” in SAARC agenda at the 14th summit was welcomed. It was, however, also expressed that informally, people had been engaged in interaction at the cultural level for a long time. Ajeet Cour, Founder-President of the Foundation of SAARC Writers & Literature (FOSWAL) said: “Our organization FOSWAL realized it long back, in 1986, and launched the first ever cultural initiative in the region with the first Indo-Pakistan Writers’ Conference in 1987.”

Highlighting the potential of cultural interaction in bringing the people of SAARC together, Gauhar observed: “Securing visas is still a problem, though it has eased a little compared to what it was like 20 years ago.” Manik de Silva, Editor, Sunday Island, Upali Newspapers Ltd. Colombo (Sri Lanka) pointed to the role played by the English language in bringing the SAARC members together while at home it was regarded as the language of the elite. Fearing the risk of

SAARC’s potentially being exploited by external powers, indicating that this should not be allowed, he said: “If we South Asian nations spend our money in doing things we are doing with other people’s money, things would be more constructive.” He also pointed to a SAARC visa exemption scheme, initiated in 1988, “still nowhere in stage of implementation.”

Emphasizing that SAARC should “not be lost to [the] smoke of politics,” Nasrine R. Karim, Columnist, Secretary General, Commonwealth Association of Bangladesh, Dhaka suggested a SAARC channel, SAARC schools…. Highlighting the importance of understanding each other’s culture, Phuntsho Rapten, Center for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu said: “We must not try to impose our culture on others. No culture is inferior.”

The economic connectivity of SAARC still has a long way to go, with intra-regional trade being less than 2% in South Asia. While there were no differences on exploiting the potential of SAARC as an economic bloc, opinions varied on how that goal should be pursued. Integration would be faster and result-oriented if the private sector was given more importance, in opinion of Hamidullah Farooqi, CEO, Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce, Kabul. Public interest would suffer and so would the common man, which would be against the spirit of “genuine cooperation,” if the private sector was given importance, according to Rubina Saigol, Educationist and Social Scientist, Islamabad.

Seeking to give greater importance to cultural diplomacy, Indian Council of Cultural Relations invited 25 painters from SAARC countries to a camp in Jaisalmer, this January, where they stayed, worked and painted together. India intends to host the first SAARC cultural festival this November. Also planned are: the inauguration of SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts later this year; the development of a SAARC Food Bank; and addressing issues related to the empowerment of women. Besides, initiatives such as SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Agreement) and the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) are expected to strengthen cross-border economic linkages. The varied activities that SAARC member nations seem engaged in send a simple message, they are keen on moving together. Accepting that economic connectivity will still take some time, they are taking constructive steps in implementing what is possible, signaling SAARC is not indulging in cosmetic diplomacy!

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