The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) comprises the seven countries of South Asia, i.e. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, The Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It is an Association based on the consciousness that in an increasingly independent world, the objectives of peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity are best achieved in the South Asian region by fostering mutual understanding, good relations and meaningful cooperation among the Member States which are bound by ties of history and culture.
The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was first mooted in November 1980. After consultations, the Foreign Secretaries of seven countries met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981. This was followed up, a few months later, by a meeting of the Committee of the Whole, which identified five broad areas for regional cooperation. The Foreign Ministers, at their first meeting in New Delhi in August 1983, adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and formally launched the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) initially in five agreed areas of Cooperation namely, Agriculture; Rural Development; Telecommunications; Meteorology, and Health and Population. Scientific and Technological Cooperation; Sports, Arts and Culture were added to the IPA at a later stage.
The Heads of State of Government at their First SAARC Summit held in Dhaka on 7-8 December 1985 adopted the Charter formally establishing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
The objectives, principles and general provisions as mentioned in the SAARC Charter are as follows
To promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;
To accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential;
To promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia;
To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems;
To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural technical and scientific fields;
To strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interests; and
To cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.
Cooperation within the framework of the Association is based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit.
Such cooperation is to complement and not to substitute bilateral or multilateral cooperation.
Such cooperation should be consistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations of Member States.
Decisions at all levels in SAARC shall be taken on the basis of unanimity;
Bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations of the Association.
The Charter of the Association provides for the following:
The highest authority of the Association rests with the Heads of State or Government, who meet annually at Summit level. To date, eleven meetings of the Heads of State or Government have been held respectively in Dhaka (1985), Bangalore (1986), Kathmandu (1987), Islamabad (1988), Male (1990), Colombo (1991), Dhaka (1993) New Delhi (1995), and Male (1997), Colombo (1998) and Kathmandu (2002).
The Heads of State or Government during the Ninth SAARC Summit agreed that a process of informal political consultations would prove useful in promoting peace, stability and amity and accelerated socio-economic cooperation in the region. This was further reiterated at the Tenth SAARC Summit.
The Council of Ministers:
The Council of Ministers, which comprises the Foreign Ministers of Member States, is responsible for formulating policies, reviewing progress, deciding on new areas of cooperation, establishing additional mechanisms as deemed necessary and deciding on other matters of general interest to the Association.
The Council is expected to meet twice a year and may also meet in extraordinary session by agreement of the Member States. Informal meetings of the Council are also held as agreed during the Sessions of the United Nations General Assembly.
The Standing Committee:
The Standing Committee comprising the Foreign Secretaries of Member States is entrusted with the task of overall monitoring and coordination of programmes; the approval of projects and programmes and the modalities of financing; determining inter-sectorial priorities; mobilizing regional and external resources; and identifying new areas of cooperation. It meets as often as deemed necessary and submits its reports to the Council of Ministers.
The Standing Committee may also set up Action Committees comprising of Member States concerned with implementation of projects involving more than two Member States. The Standing Committee is assisted by a Programming Committee. The Programming Committee, which comprises senior officials, is responsible for scrutinizing the Secretariat Budget, finalizing the Calendar of Activities, and taking any other matter assigned to it by the Standing Committee. The Programming Committee has also been entrusted to consider and submit to the Standing Committee, recommendations for action on the Reports of the Technical Committees, SAARC Regional Centres and the SAARC Audio Visual Exchange (SAVE) Committee.
The Technical Committees:
At the time SAARC was formally established in 1985, the core of its work programme was the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA), consisting of a number of Technical Committees on agreed areas of cooperation. However, as the agreed Agenda of SAARC expanded, new areas were identified for regional cooperation. The IPA too, was expanded correspondingly. The Technical Committees formulate specialized programmes and prepare projects in their respective fields under the IPA. They are responsible for monitoring the implementation of such activities and submit their reports to the Standing Committee through the Programming Committee.
Under the new SAARC Integrated Programme of Action (SIPA), the number of Technical Committees has been reduced from eleven to seven mainly through the amalgamation of the different sectors covered by the various Technical Committees and eliminating overlapping, duplication and waste. The prime objective of the reorganization has been to enhance clarity in terms of the goals and targets of the activities undertaken, as well as to improve the Committees quality and efficacy.
The seven Technical Committees under SIPA now cover:
1. Agriculture and Development
2. Communications and Transport
3. Social Development
4. Environment, Meteorology and Forestry
5. Science and Technology
6. Human Resources Development, and
An in-built mechanism for automatic review of activities under SIPA has been provided for. The review will be undertaken every three years by an independent multi-disciplinary Expert Group that would be constituted by the Secretary General in Consultation with the Member States. The Secretary General reports to the Standing Committee on the progress of the implementation of the IPA both at its inter-Summit and the pre-Summit sessions.
Specialized Ministerial Meetings: Since the establishment of the Association, a number of SAARC ministerial meetings have been held, to focus attention on specific areas of common concerns, and have become an integral part of the consultative structure. These meetings initiated cooperation in important areas such as trade, manufactures and services, basic needs, human resources development, database on socioeconomic indicators, energy modelling techniques, plan modelling techniques and poverty alleviation strategies.