Foreign ministers from eight south Asian countries will meet as part of the 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo on August 2 and 3. For the last week, ministers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Maldives have been preparing the groundwork for the two-day summit.
Foremost on the agenda will be the recent terrorist attacks in India and Afghanistan, and the escalating civil war in Sri Lanka. Among other topics to be discussed are the food and energy crisis, and climate change in South Asia. Yet another issue slowly gaining momentum is the appeal for stronger regional cooperation between the SAARC member nations, and the idea of restructuring SAARC on the lines of the European Union model.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was originally intended to improve economic ties and nurture peace between the eight member countries Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Maldives. But in recent years, the summit has been serving more as a backdrop for conflicts between individual countries -- like the Kashmir conflict for example.
To reduce differences between SAARC countries, experts have now called for the setting up of new institutions, which would include, among other things, a South Asian parliament. Plans for the same have drawn up by a forum of academicians and media representatives and have been presented to the SAARC leaders.
Calls for South Asian parliament
Dr. Abid Qayyium Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute participated in the formulation of the plans. He explains the central demand:
"This South Asian Parliament will have some sort of a check and balance and control function on our existing democracies. Democracies in this region are extremely fragile, anytime there can be martial law, dictator, parliament can be suspended. If there is some elected south Asian Parliament then of course any sort of attack on national parliament would be challenged in the South Asia Parliament.’’
Apart from this, the forum has also called for other institutions like a people-centric court of justice and a charter of human rights.
Seeking greater cooperation
According to Suleri, this would pave the way for greater regional cooperation, which in turn would also help solve economic crises like rising fuel and food prices. For this, trade barriers need to be abolished and direct trade between countries should be encouraged.
"Once we start removing these hurdles and curtailments you will find that people to people connections will be strengthened, and that would automatically follow trading opportunities, economic integration, and that would automatically follow closer relations between the countries.’’
This can help improve relations between countries that have historically been enemies, says Suleri. He points out to the example of the European Union, which was able to bring together arch-enemies like France and Germany with a view to working towards greater economic success.
To what extent the SAARC member nations are prepared to put their animosities aside, will be evident in the next few days at the SAARC summit.