Friday, August 01, 2008

South Asia for geopolitical relationship could emerge as regional power

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

THE GOVERNMENTS wish to develop partnerships with their counterparts that actively disseminate knowledge and information with a view to strengthening risk reduction at both bilateral and regional level.

Environmental and climate change, swelling food and fuel prices, economic slow-down, terrorism, new migration flows, and the risk of increasing conflicts over limited resources generally have a regional dimension. Most of the world’s conflicts occur in regions where at least one of the neighbouring countries is also affected by conflict. There is a need for closer regional cooperation on such questions with a view to preventing different types of humanitarian crisis.

The 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) — scheduled in Colombo, Sri Lanka from August 2-3, 2008, is now trying to evolve an organization devoted to an immediate implementation of its decisions with the theme “partnership for the betterment of the people.”

Since its inception while its charter was formally adopted in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 8, 1985, SAARC countries have never been able to adopt realistic approaches going beyond the politics of mistrust and suspicion. May be the leaders had realized that SAARC had to evolve into a more people-centered organization and thus this year’s theme was a progression from last year’s theme of connectivity while they were adding Afghanistan as group’s eight member in April 2007. The Summit is also expected to decide on the request of Australia and Myanmar for grant of observer status with SAARC. China, Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mauritius, USA, and EU have already been granted observer status last year.

Such partnerships should include exchange of experience of peace and reconciliation measures, dialogues on reducing vulnerability to different types of humanitarian crisis, efforts to increase understanding of risk and conflict, and discussions on emergency response, gender issues and crisis management, with a view to strengthening local capacity.

But SAARC has not been able to build such partnership among the member countries like the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan over militants issue, the conflict between India and Bangladesh about border issues, human and drug trafficking, cross-border terrorism, water sharing and so on.

Although the foreign secretaries in 1981 in Colombo and the foreign ministers in 1983 in New Delhi identified areas to promote regional cooperation, which includes agriculture and rural development; health and population activities; women, youth and children; environment and forestry, science and technology and meteorology; transport; and human resource development, but the countries in South Asia are now facing the challenge of terrorism, food security, and energy crisis. Heads of state and government leaders would find shared solutions and adopt a series of measures with the main focus on a joint approach to combating terrorism, maximizing energy and water resources, food security, and poverty alleviation.

There are a number of countries that have had little success with disaster risk reduction, and one of the reasons for this is that they have experienced several crises in a short space of time with their limited resources and expertise. Closer regional cooperation on humanitarian and development policy should be established to improve the coordination of risk reduction and emergency response, particularly with respect to natural disasters or any major crisis. In addition, the need for more regional cooperation is increased by the lack of a clear UN mandate for preparedness, risk reduction, early warning, etc. So far, the UN’s most important role has been responding to humanitarian crises, but in recent years it has played an increasing role in preparedness.

In regions where there are many small countries, cooperation will be of major significance, but it is important that regional organizations and forums involve the whole region. And in South Asia, the world’s most densely populated area covering approximately 1.47 billion people, there is clearly a need for regional cooperation in order to address those above issues in this Greater Himalaya region. The South Asian people share many socio-economic and political problems, such as poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, unequal treatment of women, violence against women, pollution, exploitation of child labour, and religious fundamentalism.

Exchange of dialogues periodically and implement them as much as possible rather quite often between SAARC countries will communicate opinions, problems and way to solution is definitely helping hand to improve relations.

To move firmly towards the implementation of SAARC initiatives, keeping in mind the need for a regional focus and orientation, its members should be more active and vibrant to ensure progress and prosperity in the region. A number of SAARC documents including the Charter of SAARC Development Fund (SDF); Agreement on the establishment of SAARC Regional Standards Organization (SARSO); SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters; and The Protocol on the Accession of Afghanistan to SAFTA are expected to be signed during the Summit. These agreements will boost regional cooperation.

However, over the years, SAARC has made several progresses in a number of areas including trade, finance, poverty alleviation, and environment. In view of the growing demand to form a regional action plan for adaptation to climate change and mobilising funds for the purpose, environment ministers of SAARC countries sat for the first-ever such meeting in Dhaka on July 3, 2008. Though SAFTA is expected to be signed, but efforts are being made to create a level playing field by eliminating all tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. SAARC Food Bank would start its operation with a food reserve of two million tons of rice and wheat. The food will remain in respective storage of the member nations as food stock.

No doubt to say that SAARC is too important and could be more effective for its geopolitical relationship with neighbouring countries and emerge as regional strength. #

First published on August 01, 2008, New York

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. He could reached at: Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com