‘Saarc may seem dead, but we should not bury it quite yet’

Even though Saarc has remained virtually non-functional at the top level since the last Saarc summit, it has many achievements and accomplishments to its credit, the speakers say

While the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) appears moribund, it remains an indispensable and irreplaceable regional grouping, in whose revival and revitalization Bangladesh has a serious stake and must take the lead in, speakers at a round-table discussion have said.

Even though Saarc has remained virtually non-functional at the top level since the last Saarc summit was held in Kathmandu in 2014, Saarc has many achievements and accomplishments to its credit, remains functional on a number of fronts, and continues good work at as many as 12 Saarc centres that remain operational through the South Asian region, they added.

Editor of Dhaka Tribune Zafar Sobhan Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

The speakers were deliberating at a round-table discussion entitled: “Saarc Is Dead, Long Live Saarc: Reviving South Asian Regionalism” convened by leading English daily Dhaka Tribune and the think tank Bangladesh Institute of Peace & Security Studies (BIPSS) at a Dhaka hotel on Sunday, as part of a series of seminars on the major issues on the global stage and how Bangladesh should situate itself in the geo-politics of the world today.

In the opinion of the speakers, the complexities of the world order in 2022 dictate that many of the challenges facing us cannot be resolved on a national level and that therefore there is no alternative to regional cooperation to address issues such as the environment and climate change and food and energy security. Given the geographical and historical realities, Saarc is the only possible and practical regional grouping for their resolution. 

Md Touhid Hossain Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Other regional and sub-regional groupings such as Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) or the South Asia Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) may exist and have a role to play, but they can only be complementary to Saarc, they cannot replace it.

Jehanzeb Khan Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

BIPSS President Maj Gen (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman moderated the roundtable while Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan delivered the final remarks. The roundtable brought together academics, local and foreign security experts, diplomats, former and serving law enforcement agency officials, journalists, and university students, among others.

Ambassador Nazimullah Chowdhury Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Former Foreign Secretary Md Touhid Hossain, Prothom Alo Head of English Web Ayesha Kabir, and Independent University Bangladesh (IUB) Chair of Department of Global Studies and Governance Assistant Prof Marufa Akter, spoke on the occasion as panelists, while former foreign adviser to the caretaker government Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury was one of a number of distinguished attendees who also spoke at the event.

Ambassador Shahed Akhtar Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Md Touhid Hossain pointed out in his presentation that almost all Saarc initiatives appear to be bogged down and that as the central country in the grouping, both in terms of geography as well as importance, unless India takes up the revival of Saarc in a big way, that things would remain much as they are. But for both India and Pakistan there are internal political considerations that make such an initiative difficult. He therefore suggested that the initiative would have to be taken by countries other than India and Pakistan, and that Bangladesh could consider taking the lead.

Air Vice Marshal Mahmud Hussain Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

“It was Bangladesh which mooted the idea of Saarc in the first place and that was the animating spirit behind it. And we owe it to Saarc's progenitors to therefore take the lead in its revival,” he added.

Ayesha Kabir Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Ayesha Kabir posed the provocative question in her presentation: “Why Saarc?” and countered by asking: “What not Saarc?” that formed the basis for her deliberations on the matter.

Brig Gen Mirza Ezazur Rahman Bgbm Ndc Psc G (Retd)Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

She laid out the stated objectives of Saarc, which ranged from the need to engage in constructive cooperation to the betterment of all concerned to giving strength to countries in the region, observing that none could disagree or find fault with any of the stated objectives of the grouping.

The question therefore becomes: "What is to be done? How is this revival to be accomplished?"

Ambassador Shamim Ahmed Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

She too pointed out that enmity between Saarc's two largest countries, India and Pakistan, posed a formidable challenge  to its functionality and also made the point that the sheer size of India in relation to all other Saarc countries also posed a challenge.

However, she concluded by stating that there could be no alternative to Saarc: “Saarc is the only way ahead. Bimstec cannot be an alternative. It can at best be a complement to Saarc.”

Dr Marufa Akter Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

She also pointed out that: “The people [of Saarc] yearn for unity and if people have their say, then Saarc will rise again.”

Dr Marufa Akter stated forthrightly that: “While we all know what the problem is, maybe the time has come to speak of Saarc's revival.”

Dr Zahid Khan Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

She focused her presentation on how international organizations emerge and situated Saarc within this theoretical framework. Saarc makes sense as a grouping as the complex interdependencies of the nations that comprise it “lead to problems that can only be resolved together” and she pointed out agriculture, food security and climate change as examples of this.

Christopher Lee Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Further, South Asia forms a cognitive community in that there does exist a shared identity among the people of the region that they all recognize and understand.

Finally, she pointed out that there would be a distinct advantage to the regional hegemon, in this case India, to better regional cooperation, and suggested water as a possible area for future cooperation in the region that would benefit all even though it is seen as a contentious issue at present.

Lt Gen A T M Zahirul Alam Reds Psc (Retd) Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

“Saarc is state-centric,” Dr Akter concluded, suggesting that it may be more fruitful if civil society were to take the lead in its revival: “People must take the lead, a bottom up approach may be more effective than a top-down one.”

Maj Gen (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman said: “Saarc was in many ways ahead of its time” and pointed to agreements on the joint suppression of terrorism (1987) and to work together on the environment (2010) as examples of areas in which Saarc's initial cooperation anticipated today's global concern and cooperation on these issues by over a decade.

Major General A N M Muniruzzaman Ndc Psc (Retd) Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, drawing on his direct involvement in Saarc's genesis, provided a short history of its development and evolution over the years. He explained how neo-functionalism or the practice of building cooperation across a wide spectrum of more minor issues can build confidence and reduce tension at a more central level.

Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury Mehedi HasanDhaka Tribune

He pointed out that while by its founding principles, especially Article 10, Saarc would not discuss or take action on contentious bilateral issues, due to its formation in point of fact much advancement was made on contentious bilateral issues: “One thing we learned was that the corridors were more important than the chambers,” he added.

Nasim Firdaus Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Another achievement of Saarc was that, paradoxically, it succeeded in strengthening the sense of sovereignty of the smaller nations because they were given equal status at the Saarc summits and meetings and the Article 10 principle of unanimity for all decisions.

Lalita Silwal Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

He concluded by observing that: “The very idea of South Asia was in many ways an achievement of Saarc and that what unites is far deeper than what divides us.”

Musaddik Ahmed (Student) Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Lalita Silwal, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Nepal, Jehanzeb Khan, Counsellor, High Commission for Pakistan, Former Ambassador Shamim Ahmed, Lt Gen. ATM Zahirul Alam, rcds, psc (Retd), Former Ambassador Nasim Firdaus, Major General Md Shahidul Haque, psc (Retd), Air Vice Marshal Mahmud Hussain, among many others also spoke.