A deathly silence has seemingly enveloped the eight-nation SAARC after postponement of the 19th summit in Islamabad. The website of the Kathmandu-based Secretariat of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation shows no updates on its activities. Most of the information in the web page date back to 2015. What is surprising is also the stony silence of SAARC Secretary General Arjun Bahadur Thapa, a veteran Nepalese diplomat, with regard to future course of action. He should have visited capitals of the SAARC member-states to reassure them that all was not lost due to the summit postponement. He is the twelfth Secretary-General of the SAARC, comprising eight member-countries of South Asia, namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Being the Nepalese Foreign Secretary from 2013 to January 2014, he certainly has the diplomatic skill to steer the SAARC clear of dark clouds.
The Islamabad summit was put off as India announced that it would not attend the summit as regional cooperation and terror do not go together. India announced its decision to pull out hours after Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit was summoned to South Block in New Delhi and handed over Pakistan's 'proof of cross-border origin' of the Uri terror attack. New Delhi, however, said India remains 'steadfast in its commitment to regional cooperation, connectivity and contacts but believes that these can only go forward in an atmosphere free of terror'.
Although many think, Bangladesh only followed India's decision, State Minister for Foreign Affairs M Shahriar Alam said the Foreign Ministry wrote to SAARC Secretariat and current SAARC chair conveying that Bangladesh could not attend the SAARC Summit due to domestic engagements. Earlier, Finance Minister AMA Muhith and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan skipped the two SAARC ministerial-level meetings in Islamabad citing domestic compulsion but then Bangladesh was represented in these meetings by the country's high commissioner in Islamabad.
But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the same time urged both India and Pakistan to defuse bilateral tension that may hinder peace and stability in South Asia. "We do not want any tension, war-like situation... in that case we will also be affected and our development of the region will be disrupted. What we sincerely expect is the two countries will settle their issues through dialogue bilaterally," she said. "I urge both India and Pakistan to exercise restraint so that there's no further escalation of tension. We want the people of South Asia not to suffer," she said.
The Prime Minister made the remarks while delivering her winding-up speech of the 12th session of the 10th Parliament. Hasina said her government always desires peace in South Asia. "We never want to see any conflict and tension created in this region If any such conflict is created, then Bangladesh will also be affected."
It's true that the SAARC's activities have been sluggish and irritatingly slow. In its decades of existence, it failed to hold 11 annual summits for political reasons, both at the bilateral and internal levels. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made 'neighbours first' as the cornerstone of his foreign policy. He even invited all the SAARC neighbours to witness his oath taking in New Delhi. At the Kathmandu summit, Modi pitched for 'reinvigorating' and 'revitalising' SAARC. In his address, he encouraged neighbours to join India's economic opportunities and growth. On the issues of trade, transit, visas, investments, education, health, communication and space technologies, he promised to help its South Asian neighbours. He avoided raising any controversial and sensitive issues that may irritate others.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at the 18th summit of the SAARC, was highly appreciative of the SAARC's huge potential. "Looking back, one would have the impression that its (SAARC) achievement have been rather modest compared to our expectations and potentials," she told the inaugural session of the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. "Yet, I remain optimistic about what SAARC can actually attain, given our collective political will and ambitions," added Hasina.
The number one principle of the SAARC Charter, as agreed upon by all the member-states is that the regional grouping will promote peace, stability, amity and progress in the region through strict adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter and Non-alignment, particularly respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and peaceful settlement of all disputes.
The onus of reviving the SAARC in fact lies with Bangladesh as the regional bloc is its brainchild. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visits New Delhi in not-too-distant future, it is expected that she, being a staunch advocate of regional grouping, will take the much-needed initiative in consultations with her Indian counterpart. As the SAARC Charter strictly prohibits raising of bilateral issues in the regional forum, Sheikh Hasina has the clout to successfully go ahead with her efforts to invigorate the bloc. In the past, Bangladesh took care not to focus any bilateral issues in the forum; rather it chose the path of dialogue and settled the issues of the Ganges water-sharing and exchange of enclaves bilaterally.
All other member-states should follow what Bangladesh did strictly following the SAARC Charter. Building an institution is not easy but it can crumble like a house of cards if it is wilfully destroyed. It is not the failure of the SAARC to deliver the goods; making it work is the combined responsibility of the political leaders of South Asia. About 1.5 billion South Asians badly need the bloc to shape up their destiny for the better.