As the geo-politics at the international stage is moving towards from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world with the rise of countries such as Brazil, India and China, it is worth studying the relevance of regional multi-lateral organisations such as the South Asian Association of the Regional Co-operation (SAARC) and how they supplant United Nations objectives such as eradication of poverty, counter-terrorism measures and the establishment of international peace and security.
It’s especially important in the Republic of Maldives as it hosts the 17th SAARC Summit in Male from 10th to 11th of this month.
Regional organisations within the scope of the UN
When the victorious world allied leaders were discussing the scope of new world order after the World War II, the newly would-be independent nations in Asia and Africa wanted to have regional scope for solving their disputes. It’s said that apart from the issue of veto among the permanent members, the issue that member-nations had when joining the United Nations was whether their sovereignty would be compromised by joining an international mutli–lateral organisation.
In that context, many regional organisations were formed after 1945. Some of the organisations such as African Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organizations, Australia New Zealand United States Treaty and Arab Union were formed for regional understanding of the political issues. Some of the regional organisations such as NATO were military and some like the African Union or the South Asian Association of the Regional Co-operation are meant to address regional issues amicably.
However, all the regional organisations per se needed to be within the scope of the UN and should comply with the UN mandate of establishing international peace and security.
History of the SAARC
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an organisation of South Asian nations, founded in December 1985 and dedicated to economic, technological, social, and cultural development emphasising collective self-reliance. Its seven founding members are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan joined the organization in 2005.
Meetings of heads of state are usually scheduled annually; meetings of foreign secretaries, twice annually. It is headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal. The 11 stated areas of cooperation are agriculture; education, culture, and sports; health, population, and child welfare; the environment and meteorology;rural development (including the SAARC Youth Volunteers Program); tourism;transport; science and technology; communications.
The SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu on 16 January 1987 and was inaugurated by late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal. It is headed by a Secretary General appointed by the Council of Ministers from Member Countries in alphabetical order for a three-year term. He is assisted by the Professional and the General Services Staff, and also an appropriate number of functional units called Divisions assigned to Directors on deputation from Member States. The Secretariat coordinates and monitors implementation of activities, prepares for and services meetings, and serves as a channel of communication between the Association and its Member States as well as other regional organizations. Iran is an observer nation in SAARC. Afghanistan became a SAARC member in 2007.
The representation of SAARC as major regional block is increasing and is rivaling the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), African Union and European Union. China has sought to become a member of SAARC, besides four other countries – Mauritius, Iran, Australia and Myanmar want to graduate from observer nations to permanent ones.
Second, SAFTA was set up in 2004 to ensure a gradual reduction of trade tariffs between South Asian countries, and came into force in 2006. India, the biggest nation in the region, would make attempts to phase out non-tariff barriers with SAARC countries. India believes that non-tariff barriers are “irritant force in trade relations with member nations. Afghanistan joined SAFTA in February 2008.
With the dawn of the twenty-first century, the South Asian region has undergone radical transformation. Many countries have expressed their willingness to join SAARC. Australia is an observer nation, New Zealand wishes to become one and Vietnam and Malaysia have expressed their willingness to be observer nations
Over the years, the SAARC members have expressed their unwillingness to sign a free trade agreement. Though India has several trade pacts with the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, similar trade agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh have been stalled due to political and economic concerns on both sides. India has been constructing a barrier across its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In 1993, SAARC countries signed an agreement to gradually lower tariffs within the region, in Dhaka. Eleven years later, at the 12th SAARC Summit at Islamabad, SAARC countries devised the South Asia Free Trade Agreement which created a framework for the establishment of a free trade area covering 1.6 billion people. This agreement went into force on January 1, 2008. Under this agreement, SAARC members will bring their duties down to 20 per cent by 2009.
Relevance of SAARC
With the rise of China and other Middle Powers such as Brazil, Australia, India, Turkey and Indonesia, the world of politics is slowly moving from the uni-polar hegemonic United States world to a multi-polar world. In that context, the regional organisations able to understand the sensitivity of their member countries assume political significance.
Take for example the Bhutan’s SAARC summit held last year, the first South Asian multi-lateral forum meeting after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks on India.
In 2011, India will use the summit as leverage to put pressures on its neighbours, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, to dismantle the infrastructure for terrorism, including actions to be taken against non-state actors harbouring extremist sentiments. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Nepal will push for an effective regional mechanism to cope with climate change. Bangladesh and Maldives are likely to support Nepal’s effort to set up a regional body, as both the countries will face the most drastic effects of climate change.
The representation of SAARC as major regional block is increasing. Including India, other countries in SAARC are wooed to trade with China which is geographically more proximate. China has sought to become a member of SAARC, besides four other countries – Mauritius, Iran, Australia and Myanmar wants to become from a observer nation to a permanent one.
Second, SAFTA was set up in 2004 to ensure a gradual reduction of trade tariffs between South Asian countries, and came into force in 2006. India the biggest nation in the region would make attempts to phase out non-tariff barriers with SAARC country India believes that non-tariff barriers are “irritant force in trade relations with member nations. Afghanistan joined SAFTA in February 2008.
With the dawn of the twenty-first century, South Asian region has undergone a radical transformation. It has witnessed a strong democratic sweep. Most of the South Asian economies have registered impressive growth trajectories. Some of its countries have also emerged as hubs for global terrorism. The international community has become far more involved in South Asian affairs due to the nuclearisation of the region.
SAARC cannot but keep pace with the changing regional dynamics. It has moved ahead on its economic agenda and expanded its reach not only by adding new members (Afghanistan ) but also by opening itself to the participation of many other countries, including China , Iran and the US, as observers.
With the emergence of a multi-polar world in which India is poised to play a major role in international institutions such as the United Nations, it will be interesting to see how India strengthens regional institutions such as the SAARC. On the other hand, SAARC will also test itself against other regional institutions such as the BIMSTEC, ASEAN, APEC and the SCO and the 17th SAARC summit in Addu Atoll will be the high point of it.
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