Bangladesh will get to pick new Saarc secretary generalAs member states do not recognise Kabul’s Taliban regime, Dhaka will send new secretariat chief.
Ending months-long confusion and speculation, seven of eight member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), barring Afghanistan, have agreed to nominate a new secretary general of the regional grouping from Bangladesh.
With the incumbent general secretary, Esala Ruwan Weerakoon of Sri Lanka, set to complete his term in March 2023, there was a confusion as to who would replace him, because as per the alphabetic order it is Afghanistan’s turn to nominate a new secretary general.
The venue of the annual summit meeting of Saarc and the appointment of the secretary general are decided in the English alphabetical order, so this time it was Afghanistan’s turn to nominate the secretary general. But as the seven Saarc member states are yet to recognise the new Taliban-led regime in Afghanistan that came to power in 2021, the issue of appointing a new secretary general had remained unsolved. Nepal has been chairing the regional bloc from 2014 as no new summit has been held since then due to a dispute between India and Pakistan.
Now all member states but Afghanistan have agreed that Bangladesh will nominate a new secretary general, two senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Post.
“We explored several options including giving a term extension to the incumbent or assigning the job temporarily to the senior director stationed at the Saarc Secretariat in Kathmandu until a new secretary general is appointed or skipping Afghanistan’s turn and allowing Bangladesh to make its nomination, or even naming someone from Nepal,” one of them said.
“Finally we have agreed that Bangladesh should be given the role, which is a less controversial choice and sets the tone for keeping alive the stalled Saarc process,” the foreign ministry official added.
Quoting high-placed government sources, Dhaka Tribune, a Bangladeshi newspaper in English said, “India, Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka have already consented to appoint a Bangladeshi for the post.”
Nepal, the current chair of Saarc, took the initiative to appoint a secretary general from Bangladesh, sidelining Afghanistan, the news report stated. “Nepal argued that since no country has recognized the Taliban government, there are complications in appointing a secretary general from Afghanistan”.
According to another source, Nepal was able to convince everyone and other countries accepted the matter, said the newspaper.
However Bangladesh is yet to make its nomination to replace Weerakoon. After Bangladesh recommends a name, the name will be circulated among member states for final approval.
“Now the government will appoint a person subject to the prime minister's approval, and the Saarc Secretariat will be informed about the nomination,” a senior official at Bangladesh’s foreign ministry told Dhaka Tribune. “There is no need to take the opinion or approval of other countries.”
“Whoever Bangladesh appoints will be the next secretary general. When the term of the Bangladeshi secretary general ends, if the problems in Afghanistan are resolved, the new secretary general will be from Afghanistan, not from Bhutan,” the Dhaka Tribune quoted the foreign ministry official as saying. The first secretary general of Saarc was Abul Ahsan of Bangladesh, who served from 1987 to 1989.
Before reaching this decision, Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Paudyal held virtual talks with his counterparts (barring Afghanistan) and consulted them on the crisis. As the presiding chair of Saarc, Nepal was proactively working to resolve the issue, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As per the Saarc tradition, all decisions are taken by consensus among member states and if even one member rejects a proposal, it is deemed as rejected by all.
“Earlier, we were unsure whether Pakistan, sympathising with Afghanistan, would oppose nominating a Bangladeshi Saarc secretariat head. But we persuaded them that the entire regional process had come to a halt due to the failure to appoint the secretary general ,” a Nepali diplomat with extensive experience of working in different Saarc countries said. “Now Islamabad is also convinced that in order to achieve the greater purpose of keeping the regional process alive, Bangladesh should be allowed to appoint a new secretary general.”
Member states have also agreed that in the meantime if they recognize the new Talibani regime in Afghanistan, the secretary general would be appointed from Afghanistan not from Bhutan, as suggested in Dhaka Tribune.
“This breach of the alphabetic order is one-off and we still want Afghanistan to be on board the regional process,” the Nepali diplomat said.
Due to a longstanding rivalry between India and Pakistan, the Saarc process has remained stalled since 2016, after India refused to participate in the 19th Saarc Summit that was supposed to take place in Pakistan. The summit was cancelled after an attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir.
India blamed Pakistan for the attack and decided to pull out of the summit, a decision that was backed by a majority of member states. Then came the crisis in Afghanistan, following the country’s takeover by the Taliban in 2021, which further complicated the Saarc process; seven other member states have yet to recognise the new regime in Kabul. Neither the member states nor the Saarc charter foresaw this kind of complicated situation.
Sewa Lamsal, foreign ministry spokesperson, said even though multiple consultations are ongoing, “it would be premature to share with the media the agreement among member states or what decisions they will collectively take tomorrow”.