SAARC: Democracy and human rights

The 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is scheduled to be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on August 2-3. However, during more than two decades of the regional body’s existence, the goal of improving the quality of life of the majority of people in the region remains a pipedream. The entire SAARC process is not in line with the issues of democracy and human rights in the member states. In the past, SAARC was taken as a club mostly of military/monarchical dictators and unaccountable leaders. However, it has improved its image in recent years.

Recently, South Asian Organisation for Human Rights, a regional INGO (chaired by former Indian Prime Minister I K Gujral) has carried out an assessment of SAARC’s role in the region. The purpose of the study was to obtain an update of SAARC process in two matters, democracy and human rights. The attempt was focused on recommending the

possible role of South Asian civil societies to intervene on important issues. In sum, SAARC has fallen far short of addressing democracy and human rights issues in the region.

The SAARC Charter is heavily influenced by regional politics. There should be some commitment by the leaders of the region, at least at a philosophical and ideological level, in favour of democracy and human rights in the SAARC process. The SAARC charter makes no mention of democracy, the system of government it wishes to develop as an instrument to accomplish the social and political goals that the people of South Asia aspire for. The charter came close to that end, by stipulating the objectives of SAARC: “to provide all individuals opportunity to live in dignity and to realise their full potentials”.

But what we have witnessed is that Third World authoritarian leaders pay the objectives a lip service and interpret their commitments in a manner that would suit their own convenience. Firstly SAARC should address the civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and secondly democracy as the instrument to ensure human rights through accountable and transparent governance in the region.

India’s role is particularly crucial. As the biggest and oldest democracy in the region with tremendous economic clout, it is certainly in a position to lead the SAARC process toward democracy and human rights. The prevailing atmosphere of mistrust especially in India-Pakistan relationship at the governments’ level along with the civil society and non-governmental engagement is hindering the SAARC process. The true civil society without prejudice of so-called ‘nationalism’ can play a pivotal role for regional solutions.

In short, South Asians should realise their dream can be materialised not by trumpeting the region’s past glory but tapping the opportunities at hand. The dream would then succeed in fulfilling the aspirations of more than 1.6 billion people of the region, irrespective of the intrusion of state boundaries, religion, ethnicity, gender, caste, creed, political belief and other social factors. In order to make it free of sectarianism, authoritarianism, militarism and monarchical chauvinism, the review of SAARC process in democracy and human rights perspectives is essential.

Bhurtel is executive director, Nepal South Asia Centre (NESAC)