Saarc leaders pledge unity amid challenges

In the face of an existential crisis, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) marked its 39th anniversary on Friday with leaders of member states expressing their determination to work together.

With the eight-member regional bloc struggling to convene regular summit meetings—the 19th, initially planned for Pakistan, was cancelled due to running India-Pakistan tensions—Nepal has continued to chair the grouping since the 18th summit held in Kathmandu in November 2014. Similarly, the meetings of the Saarc foreign ministers, which is also called the Saarc Council of Ministers, remains stalled for the past three years.

On Friday, on the occasion of the 39th Saarc Charter Day, heads of governments of member states issued statements reaffirming their commitment to bolster the organisation for the full realisation of its charter objectives, according to the Kathmandu-based Saarc Secretariat.

The first Saarc Summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh adopted the Saarc Charter on December 8, 1985.

A forum of eight countries in South Asia that are bound by ties of history and culture, Saarc, as per the charter, embodies the determination of its member states to regional peace, stability, amity and progress. This commitment is rooted in principles including sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and peaceful settlement of disputes.

“The need for closer cooperation is ever greater, given the still existing old challenge like poverty, malnutrition, along with new and emerging challenges such as climate change, cybersecurity, and natural disasters exacerbated by adverse climate,” Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said in a statement issued on the occasion, adding, “In this context, we must reinforce the values of understanding, trust, solidarity and cooperation as enshrined in the Saarc Charter through common efforts and harmonious actions.”

Although Afghanistan is also a Saarc member, it has been excluded from the process following the Taliban takeover of the country in 2021.

As a founding member and chair of Saarc, Nepal is fully committed to doing its part to energise the Saarc process and make it more vibrant, effective and result oriented, said Dahal.

Meanwhile, Nepal, the current chair, has been facing criticism for not doing enough to revitalise the subdued Saarc process. The summit scheduled in Islamabad was cancelled after an attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir. India accused Pakistan of the attack and decided to pull out, a decision that was backed by the majority of member states. The crisis in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover further complicated the Saarc process, with seven member states yet to recognize the new regime in Kabul.

“The founding objective of Saarc—to work together for the benefit of the people of South Asia—is possible only in an environment of peace and security,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his message, adding, “India remains committed to realising this objective and will continue to adopt cooperative and positive approach in this regard.”

“While we celebrate the anniversary of the Saarc Charter Day, let us resolve to work together to realise the shared vision for a peaceful and prosperous South Asia,” said Modi.

Similarly, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan in his message on the occasion stated that Pakistan is fully committed to the organisation and is actively participating in Saarc processes and activities.

“Pakistan is a firm believer in the strength and potential of regional cooperation for national and regional development. It further believes that result-oriented regional cooperation can be achieved only by adhering to the cardinal principles of sovereign equality and mutual respect, as enshrined in the Saarc Charter,” he said while expressing confidence in overcoming current hindrances, and enabling Saarc member states to forge ahead on the path of mutually-beneficial regional cooperation.

For the past few years, the Saarc Secretariat has been carrying out routine activities and meetings of lower-level mechanisms are taking place, but no there have been no significant developments.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her statement issued to mark the day, stressed the need for regional cooperation in view of the recent developments in world affairs. “As one of the founding members of Saarc, Bangladesh recognises the importance of Saarc for the socio-economic development of the people of the region through collective efforts in various cooperation areas, particularly in trade, investment, energy and connectivity.”

“The Saarc region is undergoing many challenges. I believe our collective efforts could contribute to forging closer cooperation among the member states to overcome the challenges and make Saarc an effective and result-oriented regional organisation,” she said.

Likewise, Chogyal Dago Rigdzin, the chief advisor to the Bhutan government, in his statement expressed Bhutan’s readiness to collaborate with fellow member states in enhancing the Saarc process and achieving the common objective of peace and prosperity in the region.

Similarly, the new president of Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, also called for a renewed commitment to Saarc charter principles for building a more resilient and interconnected South Asia.

“Let me today reiterate the Maldives’ commitment to achieving the common goals of Saarc and express my sincere hope that as citizens of this region, we will be able to create sustainable peace and prosperity for our people,” he said in his message.

Besides the seven heads of the governments and states, the foreign ministers of Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka also issued statements expressing their commitment to the stagnant Saarc process.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena issued a separate statement and called for recognizing the Saarc’s achievements by enhancing cooperation among the member states to advance towards the charter’s objectives.

The president of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe said his country recognizes Saarc’s immense potential, prospects, and opportunities available, which can be seized, through collective efforts.

“With an unrelenting commitment on the part of us, member states soldiering as one family, I am confident that Saarc can metamorphose into a more viable regional organisation to serve the prosperity of our region,” said Wickremesinghe.

The Kathmandu Post

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