SAARC foreign ministers to meet in New York on September 20Experts doubt a breakthrough given the continuing rivalry between India and Pakistan.
After failing to hold the informal meeting of SAARC foreign ministers on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly for three consecutive years, Nepal has scheduled a similar meeting of the regional Council of Ministers for September 20 in New York.
Nepal has been the chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation since 2014, and has become the longest serving chair in the regional grouping’s history.
A senior foreign ministry official confirmed to the Post that the meeting of SAARC Council of Ministers of seven member states except for Afghanistan has been scheduled for September and some of the member states have already agreed to participate.
“We have received positive signals from India and Pakistan, but the SAARC Secretariat has yet to receive the concurrence from these two nations,” the official added. Due to the longstanding rivalry between India and Pakistan, the entire SAARC process has stalled since 2016.
Nepal as chair should call the meeting, which is coordinated by the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu. During the first meeting of the International Relations and Tourism Committee of Parliament on Monday, Foreign Minister NP Saud had confirmed that the stalled SAARC process will be revived after the informal meeting of SAARC foreign ministers in New York.
The meeting, which is considered as a “tone-setter” to high-level meetings including the summit, could not take place in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
In 2019, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan boycotted each other’s address to a meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers organised in the margins of the 74th UN General Assembly.
In 2020, the meeting was held virtually where the member states pledged to enhance regional integration, but it was unable to end the logjam in the SAARC process. And in 2021, the meeting was called off at the last minute after member states did not give their concurrence to attend it. The then prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, had hurriedly appointed Narayan Khadka as foreign minister in view of the New York meeting.
Last year, the meeting could not take place after Khadka did not travel to New York owing to the general elections at home.
There have been occasional technical meetings at different levels led by bureaucrats, but they are not nearly enough to revitalise the regional grouping. “Committee-level small meetings have been taking place regularly,” a senior foreign ministry official said, adding, “If there will be some kind of breakthrough in the upcoming meeting, undoubtedly the SAARC process will move ahead.”
Nepal hosted the last SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014 and it was Pakistan’s turn to host the 19th Summit, but the event was cancelled after an attack on an Indian military camp in Kashmir. This led to a standoff between India and Pakistan and the summit was put off until further notice. Since 2014, Nepal has been assuming the chair of the regional grouping.
“As SAARC chair, Nepal has its own obligations,” Foreign Minister Saud said. “We all know about the recent status of SAARC. We are going to New York to attend the UN General Assembly where we have called an informal meeting of the SAARC foreign ministers which will give the organisation a new lease of life.”
This year, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal will lead the Nepali delegation, which includes Foreign Minister Saud, to the UN General Assembly.
“We are hoping that the meeting to be held in New York will also add dynamism to the organisation,” Saud said. “SAARC member states have agreed to appoint a new general secretary, who is expected to take up his new assignment soon.”
Earlier, there was confusion about the appointment of the new SAARC secretary general since it was Afghanistan’s turn to take charge of the position. But since almost none of the SAARC member states recognise the new regime in Kabul, the members sought a new arrangement and decided to allow Bangladesh to assume the role of the secretary general.
Esala Ruwan Weerakoon of Sri Lanka has now completed the term as SAARC secretary general and will be replaced by Golam Sarwar of Bangladesh soon.
“I am still not hopeful that the upcoming meeting in New York will bring any substantive change to the status of SAARC,” said Arjun Bahadur Thapa, the former secretary general of the organisation. Thapa had served as SAARC secretary general from 1 March 2014 to 1 March 2017.
“The India-Pakistan standoff has not eased, so I am not much hopeful. No positive signal is coming from both sides for rapprochement,” said Thapa.