“Promote universal respect for and observance and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, in particular the right to development; promote the effective exercise of rights and the discharge of responsibilities in a balanced manner at all levels of society; promote gender equity; promote the welfare and interest of children and youth; promote social integration and strengthen civil society”.
These lines, so rich in rhetoric, are from Article 2 of the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation’s Social Charter, a document that was signed in Islamabad on January 4, 2004.
It is evident that the SAARC was founded on the principle of justice, fairness, and dignity for all the people of the region. Since then, and up until today, poverty alleviation and according dignity and respect to all the citizens have not only remained some of the key challenges of South Asia but also the defining goals of the regional association.
The heads of states and governments in Islamabad back in 2004 further acknowledged that “empowering people, particularly women, to strengthen their own capacities, is an important objective of development and its principal resource.” “Empowerment requires the full participation of people in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of decisions and sharing the results equitably,” it further says.
Today, SAARC is basically in life support due to various factors: Lack of interest and political will among the regional leaders to resuscitate the process of regional cooperation, a weak institutional framework with a secretariat without neither a strong mandate nor the adequate means and resources to perform better, to mention a few.
In such appalling circumstances, revisiting the scope and the origins of the regional association could help us find some perspective on how to deal with the Afghanistan conundrum and, at the same time, not lose hope for the process of regional integration.
A lot at stake
The issue at stake, as reported by The Kathmandu Post on September 15, is not only if the SAARC Council of Ministers, the body that comprises all the foreign ministers, should meet on the sideline of the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York, but also the future of the regional cooperation itself. The dilemma now faced by diplomats of the region is about the possibility of organizing this meeting despite the fact that the bloc has not yet developed a clear position on what to do with the new Taliban government in Afghanistan. The irony is no country has developed a coherent policy to deal with the Taliban government.
China, pragmatically and unsurprisingly, announced that it will work with them. India, like many other powers, had some high-level meetings in Doha with the Taliban but no country, not even Pakistan, has recognized the new government. No one expects this regional group to come up with a united position on a new political reality in Kabul. However, holding the meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers could create a chance for reclaiming the moral ground behind the establishment of this regional bloc, a reflection on the core values that, despite the political divergences now dividing some of its members, still stand strong.
SAARC members should hold a Council of Ministers in New York. It should be focused on respecting the rights of women, particularly of Afghanistan.
I am referring to principles like dignity and respect of human rights for all the citizens of member states. Respect for women’s rights is a core value that no regional leader dares to reject despite the multifold challenges that women still face in the patriarchal societies of the region. The fact remains that many young women in the region are still oppressed.
However, there has been some progress as well.
Economically women are advancing and an increasing number of them within the new generations have now the skills, determination, and tenacity to assert their rights. Moreover, even though symbolically, Sheikh Hasina is the head of government of one SAARC member state and Bidya Devi Bhandari the head of state of another.
These accomplishments should matter when we revisit the original mandate of the SAARC Charter. Moreover, entire Article 6 of the SAARC Social Charter is dedicated to the promotion of the rights of women, including women of Afghanistan. Article 6 states: “States parties reaffirm their belief that discrimination against women is incompatible with human rights and dignity and with the welfare of the family and society; that it prevents women from realizing their social and economic potential and their participation on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country, and is a serious obstacle to the full development of their personality and in their contribution to the social and economic development of their countries.” This is a bold statement of a political declaration signed by the highest decision-makers of the region. And this is the reason why the SAARC Council of Ministers should be organized in New York.
Stand for values
The foreign ministers should meet and re-assert the fundamental principles enshrined in the documents that, after all, define the criteria for becoming a member of this bloc. It is not only the EU that, as a community of nations, affirms the inalienable rights as the sine qua non for its membership. The SAARC, even though in rudimental and simplistic manners, does the same because its core documents are crystal clear on the importance of respecting women’s rights.
Therefore, we have now a unique opportunity to remind the entire world that universal values are also safeguarded and held in high respect in South Asia. The Taliban need to understand that their current policies towards women are not going to be accepted not only by the Western nations but also by its own neighboring counties because they (the Taliban) are not respecting universal human rights.
One more reason the SAARC Council of Ministers should go ahead.
Legally, there is nothing that prevents the foreign ministers of the region from holding the meeting, if they want. Only one country may not attend the meeting and that will be Afghanistan. Nepal, as the current chair of SAARC, has a responsibility to lead the negotiations with other SAARC members to hold a Council of Ministers in New York and it should be focused on respecting the rights of women of the region in general and of Afghanistan in particular. It is not about interfering in the internal affairs of another country. It is about reaffirming standing principles that define an association of free willing nations that decided to work together to achieve common prosperity.
The goal of this meeting should be to emphasize that respect for women’s rights is intrinsically a part of the way South Asian countries decided to advance their peoples’ wellbeing and ensure national prosperity. Nepal does not have a foreign minister now but having a Prime Minister acting as a Foreign Minister would give the meeting even more relevance and prestige.
A summit in New York could rekindle some hope that South Asia as a common idea is still alive and that human rights matter.