SAARC was founded in 1985 with the aim of promoting economic and social development in South Asia. The organization pursues current issues in counter-terrorism and attempts to integrate the countries’ economies within a common free trade zone.
Standing for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation on ABBREVIATIONFINDER, SAARC was formed in the mid-1980’s.
The aim of the cooperation was to accelerate the economic and social development of the region and to bridge common problems, such as poverty and unemployment.
However, disputes between the countries, in particular the long-running conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, have often delayed cooperation.
The idea of closer cooperation in the South Asian region was launched by Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman in 1980.
The countries concerned, namely Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, seized on the proposal and over the next three years a number of meetings were held with State Secretaries from the countries’ Foreign Ministries.
When the Foreign Ministers met for the first time in 1983 in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a declaration on regional cooperation was signed and an action plan for cooperation was agreed. Two years later, at the first summit of heads of state and government in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a charter was adopted and the South Asian Cooperation Organization, SAARC, was formally established.
The fact that it took so long for the cooperation initiative to bear fruit was largely due to the fact that relations between Bangladesh and India became frosty in connection with Indira Gandhi’s re-entry as Indian Prime Minister in 1980. Indira Gandhi was not at all convinced that regional cooperation really existed. India’s best and she also expressed her dissatisfaction with the agreement with Bangladesh on the use of the common water resources in the river Ganges. Fighting in Sri Lanka between Tamils and Sinhalese and a resurgence of the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir further delayed regional cooperation.
A number of lofty objectives were enshrined in the SAARC Charter; it was about “working for the welfare of the South Asian peoples”, “strengthening economic and social development” and “working for mutual trust, understanding and perception of each other’s problems”. At the same time, certain principles would apply to cooperation: sovereignty, integrity, political independence and non-interference in internal affairs would be respected; all decisions were to be taken by consensus while controversial issues and bilateral issues were not allowed to be addressed.
Despite the charter’s ambitions, conflicts between the countries in the region have often been an obstacle to SAARC’s activities. The meetings of the Heads of State and Government have been postponed on several occasions. The summit, which was supposed to have been held in Kathmandu, Nepal in November 1999, was postponed, for example, after India refused to participate. By then, the Kashmir conflict had escalated during the summer and a full-blown war was looming.
The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998 had further aggravated the situation. It was not until January 2002 that the summit could get off the ground, since Sri Lanka, among others, worked hard to break the deadlock. By December 2000, a number of politicians and high-ranking officials in the SAARC countries had also grown tired of their governments’ delay in regional co-operation and formed their own organization with the task of starting the SAARC.
The next summit, which was to take place in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, had to be postponed again. But it was not due to conflicts between countries but to the aftermath of the severe tsunami disaster that hit India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh in December 2004. Only in January 2006 could the summit take place in Dhaka.
At this meeting, China and Japan were given the status of observers. In the run-up to the SAARC meeting in Delhi in 2007, member states planned to accept Afghanistan as a new member of the organization. There were also plans to allow South Korea and the United States to become observers at SAARC.
The Heads of State and Government have the highest power within SAARC and should normally meet once a year. However, it is the Council of Ministers that draws up guidelines and decides on new areas of cooperation.
The Council of Ministers consists of the countries’ foreign ministers and meets twice a year.
The actual work, however, is carried out by the so-called Standing Committee with State Secretaries and the Program Committee consisting of lower-ranking officials.
The Standing Committee is responsible for coordinating the organization’s work and is assisted by the Program Committee, which reviews the Secretariat’s draft budget and business plan. There are also a number of technical committees.
The various SAARC bodies are assisted by a Secretariat headed by a Secretary General, located in Kathmandu. The Maldives Summit in 1997 extended the Secretary – General’s term from two to three years.
At the 1991 summit, SAARC members agreed to prioritize the “eradication of poverty” in their activities.
Following the presentation of a report by the Independent Commission on the situation ahead of the 1993 summit, the countries pledged to eradicate poverty in South Asia before 2002.
A special action plan was drawn up for how this would be done, among other things through agricultural development, labor-intensive industrialization and social mobilization.
In April 1993, the SAARC countries signed a SAARC Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) aimed at facilitating trade and adapting different practices and rules to international practice. At least two thousand goods were pointed out that would have lower tariffs.
The countries have set a goal of forming a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in South Asia. At the Islamabad Summit in Pakistan in January 2004, the countries signed an agreement on SAFTA that would enter into force in two years. According to the agreement, the countries would reduce their tariffs for a two-year period to 30 percent for the least developed countries and to 20 percent for the others. The goal was that the tariffs after five years would be between 0 and 5 percent. The agreement also included a procedure for how trade disputes between the countries could be resolved.
However, several issues remained to be resolved. For example, there were differing views on tariff reductions and on how the poorest countries should be compensated for loss of income. The SAARC countries’ ambition is to eventually create a South Asian Economic Union (SAEU).
Regional cooperation in, for example, marketing and export issues is being developed in traditional industries and crafts such as beekeeping, carpet tying, ceramics. Cooperation in the agricultural sector plays an important role, given that 80% of the population in South Asia lives in rural areas and that agriculture accounts for about a third of the gross domestic product, GDP, in the region.
Other milestones in SAARC’s activities are the Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, which entered into force in 1988, and the Convention on Drugs, which entered into force in 1993. Some years into the 2000’s, a convention was signed on the importance of prioritizing child welfare and a social charter. eradication of poverty, subdued population growth, the situation of women, the protection of children and health care.
The Kathmandu Summit in 2002 set up an independent commission to make proposals to fight poverty. These were to be discussed at the next summit in Islamabad in January 2004, where the Commission was instructed to present proposals for development goals to SAARC.
The organization has also set up a number of regional institutes in the various member states, including an institute for agriculture in Dhaka, an institute in Kathmandu to combat tuberculosis and institutes for culture, coastal zone management and information. In the event of famine in the region, there is a common food reserve with bread grain.
In 1996, the members formed a South Asian Development Fund. There is a youth exchange program.
SAARC’s technical committees carry out projects, seminars and so on in many areas, such as agriculture, communications, education, environment, meteorology, health, population issues, drug control and rural development. The SAARC countries have decided to strengthen cooperation in communications and also develop cooperation in information technology.