The 18th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) recently concluded in Nepal against the gloomy backdrop of a terrorist attack in Kabul, ongoing military tension on the India Pakistan border, and an attack on a military base in Kashmir.
Besides the nicely packaged Kathmandu Declaration, the summit's only achievement appears to have been an agreement signed by the eight member states on power generation, transmission and trade projects, while two other agreements on roads and railway infrastructures could not be signed. Historically the perennial friction between the two nuclear powers - India and Pakistan - has been the main obstacle in making SAARC an effective organization and this summit was no different.
Although democracy has been strengthening in the subcontinent lately with regular elections, establishing tranquility in this politically volatile region has been a challenging task. With no dearth of serious issues - terrorism, internal and external conflicts, religious and ethnic intolerance, poverty and the nuclear race - peace and progress appear to be remote.
Challenges to peace in South Asia
The 2014 UNDP Human Development Report reveals that millions of people live in poverty in South Asia where 44.4 percent of the population, around 730 million people live on US$1.25-2.50 a day. “Many who recently joined the middle class could easily fall back into poverty with a sudden change in circumstances,” the report reiterates.
When countries are politically unstable internally, they also lack ability in negotiating peace externally. Unfortunately, internal conflicts in South Asia are in abundance and pose a real threat to regional harmony. It looks like marginalized communities in most countries in the subcontinent have been politically isolated by the establishment, with important issues decided by powerful bureaucrats in the center a recipe for discontent and resistance.
Post-colonial South Asia has also witnessed religious and ethnic intolerance on an unprecedented scale. Increasingly majority groups have been marginalizing minority religions and ethnic groups through violence, legal structures and economic exploitation in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and other countries.
Increasing terrorism in the region has both internal and external dimensions. The 2014 Terrorism Index Report recently released by the Institute of Economics and Peace identified a 61% increase in terrorism in the world in 2013 with a huge number of attacks in the region. The report includes five South Asian countries among 24 nations that are most plagued with terrorism. Of these, Afghanistan is second on the list (behind Iraq), Pakistan third, India sixth, Bangladesh 23rd and Nepal 24th. Sri Lanka and Bhutan are also included.
Kashmir is probably one of the most volatile hotspots in the world and one whose problems need to be resolved before we can even think about a durable peace in the region. As a legacy of the British colonial rule in the region, Kashmir has been the cause of two major wars between India and Pakistan, including a one in 1965 and a small-scale war in Kargil in 1999, when India and Pakistan were equipped with nuclear arsenals but fortunately didn't use them. The dispute has already claimed 50,000 to 80,000 lives, with thousands of people disappeared, imprisoned, raped and tortured.
The conventional wisdom that nuclear capability could be an effective deterrence to conflict proves to be a false pretension in the region as India and Pakistan have been engaged in armed conflicts with each other. Since Pakistan and India became nuclear states, they have been involved in a marathon race to widen their nuclear reach in the region.
When both nuclear contestants in South Asia have widespread poverty and much suffering for common citizens, the nuclear race seems to be an unfortunate development and has the capacity to wipe out millions of people and impact on rest of the world in horrifying ways.
In search of a suitable model
There have been several models for establishing peace and regional integration. The European Union model rests on a strong trade and commerce regime built on a political consensus to consolidate political and economic control in one organization while members enjoy sovereignty. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), on the other hand, offers a culturally and geographically relevant model which is also credited to develop a practical infrastructure of regional integration based on its three pillars as objectives: political-security, economic community and the socio-cultural community.
Although SAARC does not offer an impressive model of regional cooperation - mainly because its members decided not to deal with thorny issues from the beginning - it demonstrates the intention of member states to resolve mutual issues. They singed the Agreement on South Asian Free and Trade Area (SAFTA) in 2004 to eliminate barriers and create a suitable environment to improve commerce through broader economic collaboration.
Despite its failures, SAARC offers potential to develop an effective regional trade system. Establishing meaningful mechanisms -trade relations, transportation network, easing visa restrictions, promoting cultural relations and collaborating in education and research fields - might be some of the initial steps to establish long-term peace in South Asia.
The 18th summit also renewed its commitment to the proposed South Asian Economic Union (SAEU) to establish a free trade area, a customs union, a common market and a common economic and monetary union. Working on these lines, South Asia has a great potential to become one of the largest economic regions of the world if it decides to utilize its cultural similarities, deeply rooted in its historical legacies as they are, rather than its differences.
Qaisar Abbas, PhD, is a university professor/administrator, media analyst and political commentator based in Maryland, United States. He has worked as a News Producer for Pakistan TV and Information Officer in the province of Punjab.