Report on the Regional Roundtable on “Promoting People to People Interaction Through SAARC” held in Kathmandu, Nepal (July 14-16, 2010) A South Asian regional roundtable on “Promoting People to People Interaction Through SAARC” was held in Kathmandu, Nepal, on July 14-16, 2010. It was organized by the Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS) in collaboration with the Global Partnership on Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) and Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS). Due to the long-felt need of civil society and think-tank led roundtables on ways and means to promote people to people interaction within the SAARC region, the regional secretariat for GPPAC South Asia, the RCSS, proposed at the Regional Steering Group (RSG) meeting in March 2010, that a roundtable be held in Kathmandu as it is home to the SAARC Secretariat. The members of the RSG requested CSAS to organize this event. The main focus on the theme of the roundtable had also borne out of the decision of the 14th & 15th SAARC Summits in which the importance of such events in the region was emphasized by heads of states and governments. Given the fact that major global actors such as the European Union, the United States, China, Japan and Republic of Korea are now the Observers of SAARC, the critical importance of regional cooperation organizations such as the SAARC cannot be under-estimated.
The presence of three declared nuclear power weapons states (India, Pakistan, China) in the SAARC realm has further accentuated civil society centered track II dialogues in order to prevent full-fledged armed hostility between India and Pakistan on the one side and India and China on the other due to their long-standing border disputes and chilled bilateral relations. The timing of the roundtable could not have been better as recent hiccups and controversies in Indo-China relations were being felt by all in the region. South Asia is home to teeming millions wherein the people below the poverty line is greater than in sub-saharan Africa. It cannot afford another spate of armed hostility between member states at a time when other regions such as the ASEAN and the EU have moved a great deal towards peace and cooperation.
Erudite academics, diplomats and experts on SAARC issues from South Asia and Mr. Darynell Rodriguez Torres, Representative of the GPPAC from The Hague participated in the roundtable. Mr. Nishchal N. Pandey, Director of the CSAS, hosted a reception in honor of the delegates at the Radisson Hotel, Kathmandu which saw Ambassadors from SAARC countries represented in Kathmandu, Director from the SAARC Secretariat, civil society leaders and journalists attending. It provided an informal setting to engage in a discussion on urgent political cruxes in the region and approaches to be undertaken so as to build on the atmosphere of trust and cooperation as has been repeatedly underscored by the SAARC Summits.
During the inaugural session, well known Nepali journalist and Editor of Nepali Times weekly Mr. Kunda Dixit shed light on the shortcomings of SAARC despite of 25 years of existence and elaborated on militarized and overly security conscious governmental regulations of the region. In a lucid manner, Mr. Dixit talked about the need of a borderless region wherein people, ideas and goods can travel freely. He said that from an airplane, it is only the Indo-Pak border which is visible at night due to the lighting of the border walls and fences recently done. Participants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka as well as from Nepal highlighted the importance of promoting track II and track III approaches and initiatives in South Asia which would be a big step forward towards achieving a customs union, common currency, South Asian Economic Union and even a South Asian parliament as envisaged by the people of SAARC. Executive Director of RCSS Prof. Amal Jayawardane and Mr. Darynell Rodriguez Torres also spoke on the occasion.
Brig. Shahedul Anam Khan from Bangladesh:
Speaking of CSOs in Bangladesh, Brig. Khan mentioned that they are divided on party lines and therefore opinions stem from party positions; hence it divides the nation in the sense that it does not have one voice. CSOs in Bangaldesh believe that SAARC can be resuscitated to the level of a useful mechanism. Poverty is still rampant in the country as is trafficking of women and children and basic needs have not been fully acted on by SAARC. When comparing SAARC with ASEAN one has to take into consideration that the motivation is different. ASEAN was based on security and we need to think if it is possible to think of SAARC as providing a security architecture for the region. He believes that SAARC can be as strong as the leaders want it to be. INSA (Imagining a New South Asia) is a CSO initiative which aims to ensure freedom, prosperity of the people and enhance unity to bring about a pluralistic democracy in the country.
Ms. Nighat Khan from Pakistan:
Spoke of differences within civil society which has political stands but stated that it is probably the dynamism and strength of civil society. She also pointed out that one needs to sometimes be critical of civil society as well as certain South Asian institutions have given wrong information on which policy has been based on. Ms, Khan elaborated on people to people pressures that she has been involved with when women in South Asia have been working on women’s processes and carried out joint campaigns and joint actions across borders. They have also formed a whole range of networks.
Pakistan-India people’s forum for peace and democracy is notable as a CSO that has made progress. Soldiers of Peace which include officers of the military of India and Pakistan has been very important in terms of negotiating with the governments as the military, once retired become a part of civil society. In 1996, the SAARC Women for Peace was a NGO that was established. However, with regard to SAARC, Ms. Khan mentioned that the government body is relatively untouched by these organizations and that CSOs have more influence with the UN than with SAARC therefore it is important that CSOs build strategic alliances.
Dr. Paula Banerjee from India
Dr. Banerjee began by stating that South Asia is the region that has the highest gender gap and India as the worst in terms of women’s health. Criticizing the governments in the region, she said that they were neither people centred nor people oriented as national security always overrides that of human security. As far as she believes, security should be security of the people and not the land. As such, governments have failed in addressing the needs of health, poverty etc. She pointed out that governments are part of the problem but a necessary evil therefore it is important to work with them and keep engaging them in CSO work.
She highlighted the importance of working beyond borders as most of what happens in one country affects another. Trafficking was shown as an issue that warranted interest in the region. However, the root of all conflicts was said to be the lack of resources and that nothing can be resolved without people’s activism.
In the discussion that followed, the following points were highlighted:
There is an intellectual lacuna to deal with the problems in the region. However, South Asia is one of the epicenters of the global paradigm phase, therefore it needs the role of the non-state actors.
Emphasis on people to people was laid at the first SAARC summit and it was recognized by the leaders. Many institutions now exist but have not been active in this regard.
SAARC has become state centric so a clear rapport has to be established between the government and the people. This kind of form should move forward and make an impact on the governments.
SAARC’s benefits for the people should be improved, i.e. government representatives can travel easily within the region but the people cannot and even in the declaration, there is no reference to civil society. Only work on climate change is done with CSOs.
People’s SAARC exists as a pressure group therefore could work with them. But a mechanism should be crated where CSOs can formally interact with the governments.
As regards GPPAC work engaging RIGOs, it is important to create space and scope for interaction. Should be explored whether CSOs can influence governments prior to the summits. Recommendations can only be submitted to the SAARC secretariat.
There should be a balance between engagement and a confrontational approach such as naming and shaming. However, it is best to lean towards engaging which although a lengthy process might be more productive. Make SAARC aware of what role it can play.
It is not unusual that public servants and officers of armed forces after their retirement work in the NGO sector. Informal contacts maintained by former Track I officials who are now Track II are important as they have influence on governments.
CSOs can adopt a regional strategy to engage with SAARC and governments. CSOs in South Asia need to build partnerships with think-tanks, scholars and academics for this.
At the moment SAARC does not have adequate mechanisms needed to improve its work with the people. India and Pakistan hold SAARC hostage at most meetings. CSOs need to put more pressure and not accept the present situation and this can be done as a collective movement. CSOs should hold governments accountable by bringing forth agreements they have signed.
SAARC Secretariat is unlike the EU or ASEAN. It is more like an extension of Foreign Ministries. Therefore, influencing the governments in own countries might be easier. CSOs should lobby with their own governments before the summits.
Should engage in a brainstorming of issues in South Asia and bring out a publication with solutions which could be given to the individual Foreign Ministries prior to the summits.
Within the SAARC Secretariat, it is possible to prioritize certain issue areas. The issues should be programmatized and there should be a dialogue process – national dialogue, inter-country dialogue and regional dialogue.
Decisions for South Asia are usually made outside of South Asia. It is important to do a conflict mapping within the region. This could be on inter and intra-state conflicts. Thereafter it can be a research and fact finding component.
Need to include the gender and youth dimension in work.
Main points summarized were: a) should be optimistic; b) should build informal contacts with former Track I presently Track II persons and influence the process in this way; governments are not always aware of the issues, therefore educate them; develop a programme; more productive to work on the national level in lobbying with governments.
On July 16, the participants visited the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and Pacific under the Office for Disarmament Affairs and acquired information on the activities of the Centre. Mr. Tajiro Kimura, Director of the Centre made a presentation on the objectives and planned activities of the Centre in the coming months. Participants suggested that since this is a regional office, there could be collaborative programs undertaken with their institutions and universities which would be beneficial to the UNPRCD as well.
Thereafter, all the participants visited the SAARC Secretariat and held discussions with Director of SAARC Mr. Niranjan Man Singh Basnyat. This was a unique opportunity for the regional participants, as for most of them, this visit was their first experience at the Secretariat. They acquired information on the Thimpu Summit and areas wherein the SAARC Secretariat has been working with the civil society representatives and think-tanks across the region. Some participants opined that SAARC has been relatively slow in promoting track-II dialogues and deliberations that contribute to peace-building in the overly militarized region. Others suggested that the Secretariat could give on hire the Secretariat hall for regional meets and seminars which could also attract academics and youths of the South Asian region within the premises of the Secretariat. They also visited the Secretariat’s library and promised to send books from their respective institutes and universities regularly to the library which is a common library for South Asian researchers, academics, and students. At the moment, the library only has a modest compilation of books. Some participants undertook the responsibility to send journals published from their institutions regularly to the library.
During dinners and sightseeing tours, the participants got to know in an informal manner the perceptions and long-held notions of state security by others in the region. South Asia which is only beginning to have these regional roundtables and where the state has always discouraged such meets, it was felt by everyone that the GPPAC supported regional roundtable must continue with the RCSS and CSAS taking the lead in the years ahead.