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Dhaka Tribune

News analysis: Is Covid-19 videoconference sign of resuscitating Saarc?

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), incepted about three decades and a half ago, has somewhat failed to realize the objectives for which it was established.

Update : 15 Mar 2020, 10:19 PM

However, the organization comprising of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka has somehow managed to survive and took various initiatives from time to time albeit the level of implementation remained low.

Things went from bad to worse in 2016 when the 19th Saarc Summit that was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November was postponed after India’s boycott against the backdrop of the terrorist attack in Uri in the then Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir. Later, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives also pulled out of the summit.

And, since then, there has virtually been no development as far as Saarc is concerned and no one knows when the next Summit would take place, as according to the charter, every decision has to be taken unanimously.

“Saarc is already dead. Only, the burial is to take place,” said a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh, reflecting the current sorry state of the regional body.   

It was established in Dhaka aiming to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improving their quality of life, accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region. But, even the most optimistic believer in Saarc cannot say, the body got close to achieving its objectives. 

All the leaders of the Saarc member states admit that the regional body has yet to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of the people of the region. There are many reasons including lack of political will, understanding and seriousness, and a trust deficit among member states.

At every summit, the leaders recognize the potentials of the Saarc and place emphasis on working together to better the lives of people of the region that houses nearly one-fifth of the population of the globe. And, many agreements have also been signed.

But, the leaders appear to forget what they say after the summits and there are hardly any productive follow-ups on the agreements signed between the member states.

Undoubtedly, acrimonious relationship between India and Pakistan - two largest members of the forum, was the main reason behind the ineffectiveness of the organization. Apart from the tense relationship between Delhi and Islamabad, there are also bilateral problems amongst other member states.

For instance, India has some issues with Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka and on rare occasions with Bhutan too. Bhutan and Nepal have some problems as well. The relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan becomes hostile from time to time and the relationship between Bangladesh and Pakistan is not in its best. 

If the bilateral relations between the member states are not cordial and trustworthy, then it is valid for people to ask how they will positively cooperate multilaterally.

On the heels of such a demoralizing scenario, the initiative of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to arrange a video conference among the eight Saarc countries to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, is a welcome change. And, it is more welcoming that all other seven members, including Pakistan, took part in it.

India, which has in recent years appeared to have sidelined Saarc, perhaps, came to realize that the regional body is a platform which could be used to fight the deadly disease that is creating havoc across the globe.

The event also signifies that if all the Saarc member states can come together to fight Covid-19, then why can’t do so in fighting poverty, terrorism and etc. It also gives hope to many that the talks among the leaders could well be a sign of revival of the organization.   

Saarc will only be successful when the member states will truly work to tap into the potentials of this forum and work in the spirit of unity burying the bitterness amongst them.

Otherwise, it will remain in the manner it has been since 1985 and at some point of time it will become history.

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