SAARC Appoints a New Secretary General from Bangladesh: Where Does SAARC Stand Now?

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The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an inter-government regional organization comprising eight South Asian countries. It was Bangladesh that originally pitched the idea of creating a regional organization and the SAARC came into existence as a result in 1985. The primary goal of this regional forum was to promote regional peace, prosperity, and economic growth based on the ‘functional approach’ of cooperation. However, different issues like inter-state rivalries, lack of mutual trust and political will, and external influences in the region have seriously damaged the smooth functioning of the SAARC again and again. Recently, the organization has decided to appoint its new secretary general from Bangladesh. Indeed, this is a great opportunity for Bangladesh to rejuvenate the dying regional forum with which the country has special attachments.

The SAARC Appoints its New Secretary General from Bangladesh

After ending months-long confusion and speculation, the member states of SAARC excluding Afghanistan have reached on consensus to appoint the next secretary general from Bangladesh. There were concerns about who will be the next general secretary as the tenure of incumbent General Secretary Esala Ruwan Weerakoon of Sri Lanka was set to complete in March 2023 and Afghanistan was in line as per the alphabetical order to nominate a new secretary general for the organization. But, six of the member states expressed their reservation about appointing Afghanistan citing the unstable political situation in the country. Moreover, seven SAARC member states are yet to recognize the Taliban government which came into power in 2021. However, if the situation improves, the next general secretary after Bangladesh will be appointed from Afghanistan, not from Bhutan.

This role is not new for Bangladesh, as the first secretary general of SAARC was Abul Ahsan of Bangladesh who served from 1987 to 1989. Now, as Bangladesh got the green signal, the government will nominate a person and the SAARC Secretariat will be informed about the nomination. According to a government source, Bangladesh has already appointed Bangladesh’s high commissioner in Malaysia Golam Sarwar as the next general secretary of the SAARC which is just waiting for the Prime Minister’s approval.

The appointment of the new secretary-general is definitely a positive step ahead for the organization. By doing this, the SAARC is giving a message that it is still somehow functional, which is obviously better than doing nothing and sitting duck. Most importantly, after a long time, all the countries were on the same page to appoint Bangladesh instead of Afghanistan which was another plus point. And lastly, nominating Bangladesh over Afghanistan was also a breach of the SAARC established procedure which is nominating a new secretary general and the venue of the annual summit in the English alphabetical order. So, if member states can do that to nominate a new general secretary, they can also do the same to designate a new venue for the postponed summit. Because SAARC continues to remain hostage to the 19th Summit which could not be held and could not be rescheduled either. So, it is high time for SAARC countries to move on and have a summit by any means, even if it necessitates breaching the established procedure.

The Current Position of SAARC as a Regional Organization

Over the last 37 years, despite numerous difficulties and challenges, SAARC has managed to bring some positive developments. The latest one is the creation of the voluntary Covid-19 Emergency Fund for the SAARC countries where all eight members combined committed a total of $21.6 million. In the meantime, the SAARC Development Fund allocated $5 million for Covid-19 projects in eight member nations. Another such initiative was the SAARC Food Bank (SFB) which was established in 2007. And for the first time in 2020, the SFB was instrumental in helping Bhutan fight its food crisis by providing a shipment of rice. However, the most commendable achievement of the SAARC so far is the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) which was signed back in 2004 with the aim to establish SAARC free trade area. Along with these, the organization was successful in the establishment of the South Asian University, SAARC Arbitration Council, and South Asian Regional Standards Organization. The organization also has regional centers which cover different issues like agriculture, tuberculosis, and human resource development.

However, the failures of SAARC always get ascendance over its successes. For example, there was huge criticism due to the silence of SAARC and its inability to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka which reflects a lack of a sense of regionalism. Moreover, it is said that SAARC only exists in official documents, as it has failed to accomplish any of its ambitious objectives in the last three decades. It has failed to hold 14 annual summits due to political reasons since its inception. Economically, South Asia is considered the most fragile and less connected region in the world, as intra-regional trade accounts for less than 5% of South Asia’s total trade which amounts to around $28 billion. In spite of having historical ties and similarities in economic, social, and cultural domains, the SAARC countries have failed to create any economic grouping and thus failed to reach the expected destination.

There is no doubt, the SAARC countries have huge potential in the current world politics. South Asia has a sizable market of roughly 1.7 billion people with its vast natural resource endowments, rapidly expanding middle class, extensive coastline, and geographical closeness to some of the world’s largest economies. Most importantly, the world’s geostrategic shift toward the Indo-Pacific has made South Asia a major target of major powers. Increasing geopolitical competition is already noticeable in the region as powerful countries are coming up with big initiatives which are beneficiary for the countries. But it is challenging at the same time. As competition intensifies, fear of internal fragility and economic collapse looms large. And Sri Lanka is the best example of it. So, in this complex and dangerous geological situation, a functional SAARC is much-needed to create a sense of regional unity which would help countries to act together for the betterment of the whole region.

But, so far, the SAARC has failed to do any of this due to some obvious reasons. The India-Pakistan rivalry is one prime reason behind the SAARC dysfunction. Since the Uri terrorist attack, India has pledged to isolate countries supporting terrorism indicating Pakistan. In addition, disputes in Kashmir remain a source of contention limiting the SAARC’s growth. The dominant position of India in the region is also problematic for some nations. India is the largest member of SAARC in terms of territory and population size which make other countries apprehensive about their existing asymmetry with India. Besides, water-sharing disputes among member states are also puzzling. Also, we cannot ignore internal political dynamics and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan which hamper the proper functioning of the SAARC. Furthermore, the presence of external powers like the US and China for their geopolitical interests is also not helping SAARC. Most importantly, as the organization does not permit member states to discuss sensitive political issues in the forum, they often choose to discuss these issues bilaterally which reduce the necessity of a regional organization like the SAARC. Nonetheless, the consensus-based model of the SAARC is also quite problematic, because it needs all members to agree on the same issue which is very difficult to achieve nowadays.

Expectations from Bangladesh as the New General Secretary

The SAARC was an initiative of Bangladesh and there is already a high expectation among other member states about the new role of Bangladesh. Despite SAARC’s years of inactivity, Bangladesh has done everything under its power to keep the organization alive. In the spirit of regionalism, Bangladesh came forward to assist Sri Lanka during its crisis moment with $2.3 million in emergency medical supplies and $250 million in currency swaps to lift the country out of the crisis. Similarly, Bangladesh contributed $1.5 billion to the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund. Moreover, one of the major goals of SAARC is to promote regional economic integration and Bangladesh has been trying its best to pursue this goal. As a result, overall export to SAARC countries grew 53% year-on-year to $2.28 billion in Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). Besides India, Bangladesh exported goods worth $105 million each to Nepal and Pakistan in FY22.

These good gestures indicate the real commitment of Bangladesh to the SAARC. Now, Bangladesh can well utilize its new role to make the organization functional again. With Pakistan now ready to host the postponed summit, Bangladesh can use its close ties with India to convince the country to join the summit. Moreover, the leadership of Bangladesh has proved vital for the SAARC over and over. For example, after the 2016 incident, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina requested both India and Pakistan to exercise restraints and solve their disputes through dialogues to avoid further escalation of tension which may hinder regional development. Moreover, Bangladesh’s leadership was also effective in the signing of the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation during the 18th SAARC Summit. Furthermore, due to its geographical location sandwiched between South and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh can offer connectivity and become a regional connectivity hub for both SAARC and ASEAN countries.

Most importantly, Bangladesh has been quite successful in fighting poverty, inequality, and climate change-related threats. So, Bangladesh can help other SAARC member states in tackling these non-traditional security threats which might also work as confidence-building measures under the SAARC’s ‘functional approach’ of cooperation. If successful, cooperation in these sectors might encourage SAARC member states to discuss and cooperate on more sensitive issues. Moreover, Bangladesh can encourage the observer states of the organization and civil society organizations of the member states to be more participatory in the process. After all, it is not only the responsibility of Bangladesh, but the collective responsibility of all to make SAARC effective and functional again.

The South Asian regional organization SAARC has been inactive and dysfunctional for years. But with the new role of Bangladesh, there are growing expectations that the SAARC will bounce back and become functional again. However, Bangladesh needs the active support of others to transform these expectations into realities.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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