As the 14th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Summit draws nearer, and the host, the Indian Government, begins to step up its preparations, it seems a good time to raise certain issues and questions, designed to draw lessons for the next stage of regional institution building. Where are we? What issues, practices and policy changes can be proposed to improve the quality of regional policy making and implementation? What can civil society organisations and citizens do to contribute effectively to this process? How can SAARC be made more open and transparent to South Asian citizens? What are some of the best practices that have contributed to an effective intra-state coordination, consultation with non-state actors and public accountability? The vision of SAARC today should be that of a South Asia that is integrated, prosperous and peaceful; a South Asia driven by its own citizens; an anti-colonial, democratic and dynamic force in the global arena; and human and peoples’ rights the cornerstone of its political programmes.
Wars and killings in the name of nations; violence, often on a massive scale; boundaries and borders creating major elements of conflicts between the nation states; trans-border crime, narco-terrorism, illegal and informal transactions; illegal migration and large-scale refugee infiltration; trade and transit barriers and trade imbalances — we can find all this and much more in serious proportions in these times of SAARC. However, they are not the core of our assessment, as nobody had believed that these issues could be resolved in two decades or so. The core is that even though some significant spaces have been opened up for greater and more sustained regional cooperation and some beginning has been made, the overall mood is not optimistic, and the prospects of a people-driven SAARC remain largely unfulfilled. Lack of vision, initiative and will, inadequate institutional capacity, and inappropriate policies and procedures have totally negated any thought and practice that SAARC should build a partnership between governments and all segments of civil society, to strengthen solidarity and cohesion among our people in South Asia. There is hardly any civil society participation in its policy development processes, and it is taken as a closed, non-transparent, non-serious affair in the region.
Three developments — terror and counter-terror, corporate globalisation, and political violence — have been deeply impacting the South Asian region in recent times. A few random examples from any region, be it Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, reveal that blatant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms are immense. In Bangladesh, politically motivated misuse of institutions of the state, including the police and the judiciary, and the frequent use of violence against political opponents has had a grave impact on respect for human rights. An increase in human rights abuses purportedly committed in the name of political and religious ideology, high incidence of extreme poverty, and the inability of so many Bangladeshis to enjoy adequate access to basic economic and social rights, are of continuing concern. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated dramatically and there is no end to unlawful killings, recruitment of child soldiers, abductions, enforced disappearances, destruction of homes, schools and places of worship. The Pakistani government is committing numerous human rights violations as a result of its cooperation in the US-led ‘war on terror’. Hundreds of people have been arbitrarily detained. Many have been subjected to enforced disappearances, held secretly, incommunicado and in undisclosed locations, with the government refusing to provide information about their fate and whereabouts. More than 85 per cent of detainees at Guantánamo Bay were arrested, not on the battlefield by the US forces, but by the Afghan Northern Alliance and in Pakistan, at a time when rewards of up to US$5,000 were paid for every ‘terrorist’ turned over to the USA. The continuing saga of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the Armed Forces Special Power Act, the disappearances in Kashmir, the massive displacements and repression in the wake of Special Economic Zones and other corporate projects, violence against women and children loom large on the face of the Indian government, readying itself to take a lead in SAARC and other regional-international forays, including the UN Human Rights Council.
In this context, SAARC needs a paradigmatic shift today. It came into being with the basic aim of accelerating the process of economic and social development amongst its members through joint action in the agreed areas of cooperation. However, today SAARC requires each of its member states to promote and protect human and peoples’ rights, consolidate democratic institutions and culture, ensure good governance and rule of law, promote peace, security and stability in the region, and base its actions on essential principles like respect for sanctity of human life, promotion of equality between men and women, and condemnation of impunity and unconstitutional changes of government. The principle of non-interference in internal affairs should be replaced by a principle of non-indifference to the problems facing South Asian States, and the right of the Association to intervene in respect of grave circumstances, namely wars, pogroms and crimes against humanity. The Association is required to promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance. It should be a sum total of democratic states, respectful of human rights and keen to build equitable societies. This vision should be implemented at the institutional level by the creation of new organs, like a South Asian Parliament and an Economic, Social and Cultural Council, designed specifically to increase the voice of South Asian people in SAARC’s decision making procedures.
Everyone has certain human rights and fundamental freedoms that South Asian governments must uphold and respect. This is required even more today, as the governments in the region are also being shaped through military dictatorships, ethnic and religious conflicts, emergencies and political violence. Human rights and fundamental freedoms that are universally recognised have developed over the decades. There are a number of treaties, declarations and resolutions to this effect. Despite this, if our governments today continue to violate human rights and justify their actions on grounds of ‘security’ or ‘sovereignty’, it is up to the regional community as a whole to protect these rights on behalf of the people all over South Asia.
We can look up for some good practices from the African regional systems like the African Charter, which was unanimously adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1981. The Charter laid out a range of rights and duties that should always be respected. It also established the African Commission to oversee its implementation. However, the Commission was not a judicial body and could only make recommendations, which were often ignored by governments. This lack of an effective enforcement mechanism led to calls for the establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and in 1998, the OAU adopted a protocol to establish such a court. It took six years for the Protocol to enter into force and it was in January 2006 that African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government elected the 11 judges to serve in the Court. Other Protocols have been adopted, among them are: the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2005), the AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (2003), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1999). The African Commission itself has adopted several guidelines and declarations. Any individual or organisation can make a complaint to the African Commission concerning a violation by a state party of any of the rights guaranteed by the African Charter. The Court can consider cases of human rights violations brought by the Commission, by states and, in some cases, directly by the victims themselves or their representatives, including NGOs.
We need to remind ourselves now of the late K. R Narayanan’s address, titled ‘SAARC 2000 and Beyond’: ‘SAARC must place emphasis on non-governmental and people’s initiatives and participation. It is perhaps on a wave of peoples’ interest and enthusiasm that SAARC could carry the governments and fulfil its destiny.’