28 October 2016
People’s SAARC, a regional network of progressive South Asian people's movements and mass organisations, is deeply dismayed at the cancellation of the 19th South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan in November 2016. India initiated the process of cancellation by conveying its decision to not attend the Summit. This automatically triggered the postponement or cancellation of the Summit as per the SAARC Charter which stipulates that all heads of states of member states have to attend the Summit. India’s pull-out was supported by governments of Afghanistan and Bangladesh, both of whom have their own complaints with the Pakistan government. Bhutan too withdrew from the Summit citing unconducive environment in the neighbourhood.
As a network that seeks to work collectively to unite and democratise South Asian society, we see the cancellation of the 19th SAARC Summit as an unfortunate instance of the use of SAARC Summits for coercive neighbourhood foreign policy rather than a tool of peace building for regional development and prosperity. Bilateral disputes should not be used to derail multilateral processes.
We welcome the statements of all SAARC governments iterating their support for the SAARC process and the ongoing meetings of SAARC on energy, security and other regional issues. However, the cancellation of the SAARC Summit is an opportunity missed to project the South Asian region in the global fora as a collective, cohesive, growing region with a large youthful population, and to send out a message that the region stands united in spite of the many contentious issues bedevilling the region.
The world over, regionalism has emerged as a response and basis of engagement with processes of globalisation. However, the unevenness of democratisation and of development in South Asia is linked to the unevenness of internal conflicts. Regional forums should help cool bilateral tensions, rather than succumb to them. The recent rise in militaristic discourse in countries of South Asia is a source of great worry, and runs completely contrary to the goals of SAARC. Instead, once again the predominant framework for addressing conflicts has been the military framework instead of democratic peaceful engagement. The SAARC and especially SAARC Summits are important institutional spaces for addressing the aspirations of the people of the region and allowing for tackling of contentious issues in a multilateral framework.
SAARC Summits as a tool of foreign policy
This is not the first time that participation in SAARC Summits has been used as a coercive tool of foreign policy. In 1987 Sri Lanka refused to attend the SAARC Foreign Minister’s Conference in New Delhi and it refused to host the SAARC Summit in 1989 due to tensions with India. From 1999 to 2002 no SAARC annual summits were held because of India's refusal to attend the summit meetings. It was the period after the Kargil war (1999) and terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament (2001). However, convinced by the arguments that New Delhi's stance was causing damage to the regional grouping, India decided to attend the delayed Islamabad summit in 2004.
South Asian neighbours have been critical and resentful of India’s coercive neighbourhood diplomacy. And yet SAARC Summits have also provided a space for informal conversations, meetings and negotiations that have resulted in formal agreements on several knotty issues.
SAARC Summits as confidence building mechanisms for regional peace
The SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu in 1987 has been described as a triumph of accommodative diplomacy. It resulted in many unexpected agreements between India and Pakistan. Informal talks between Indian and Sri Lankan heads of states led to the signing of Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord and informal meetings between heads of states of Nepal and India led to an agreement to start discussions to augment water flows of the Ganges River.
At the 1988 SAARC Summit in Islamabad three important issues in Indo-Pakistan relations, were deliberated privately and resulted in significant agreements. Taking this practice further, India and Pakistan had informal discussions on the side-lines of the SAARC Summit meeting at Male in 1997, and agreed for the first time to work toward mutually acceptable solutions in the spirit of the Simla Agreement principles nearly two decades after signing the Agreement.
The following year, the Colombo summit in 1998 provided an important opportunity for first contact between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan after the nuclear tests by the two countries earlier in the same year. The informal meeting at Colombo seemed to have broken the ice between the two leaders and started a process that culminated in the Lahore bus journey in 1999 to renew the peace efforts between India and Pakistan.
These instances underline the utility of SAARC as a confidence-building mechanism and the importance of multilateral fora in providing space for initiating resolution of contentious bilateral issues.
People centric foreign policy for peace in the region
The people of every country in South Asia have been victims of terrorism. Both terrorism and the typically repressive response of the state have always led to a vicious cycle, undermining of democracy. Historical experience has shown that the cycle of terrorism and state terrorism never eliminates terrorism. Support and legitimacy for all acts and organisations of terror, as well as state actions that violate democracy, natural justice and the rule of law are deeply detrimental to building up peace and regionalism in South Asia which are important goals for all nations in the region. On the contrary, these activate the emergence of resistance which may disintegrate into sectarianism and sectarian ideology undermining notions of peoplehood and nationhood. In fact, it is the people’s movement that can cut this nexus through a struggle for democratisation, equality and equity for all. The doctrine of preventive intervention as a military strategy has failed to eliminate terrorism. The struggle can best be met through democratic political contention, the most fertile ground for contending against terrorism.
It is ironical that South Asia, which is home to the largest number of impoverished people and malnourished children, is also the most militarised region in the world today, and one of rising conflicts creating instability, fear and fractures in the polity. Competitive militarism in the neighbourhood is a detriment to building a robust and vibrant regionalism, as well as of enabling meaningful and substantive change in the lives of South Asian people.
It is the understanding of peoples movements that if peace and democracy in South Asia are not strengthened and sustained to build South Asia as a zone of peace, no South Asian government will be able to deliver on its promises of development, governance and inclusive growth. Thus, continuing dialogue between the SAARC countries is the best way to collectively address the region’s common challenges as well as fostering cooperation and collaboration among member states.
People’s SAARC calls on the SAARC countries, especially India and Pakistan, to restore dialogue on the SAARC platform and ensure that SAARC as an instrument for peace, stability, security and development, is not undermined or weakened.