The SAARC Charter for Democracy: A Forgotten Hope?

The Addu Declaration signed at the end of the recently concluded SAARC Summit in Maldives has been talked up as a promising roadmap for future cooperation in the region. However, without a meaningful commitment towards democracy, the aims of the Addu Declaration can never be fully realised. Consequently, the 17th SAARC Summit should be deemed a failure, as the SAARC Charter of Democracy was not signed.

The 17th SAARC summit was held November 10 - 11. The heads of state of the eight members signed off on the Addu Declaration, a 20-point agenda on a wide range of issues from tacking terrorism to enhanced economic cooperation. In addition, the foreign ministers signed four agreements on Response to Natural Disasters, Conformity Assessment, Implementation of Regional Standards, and Seed Bank. An agreement on this list that is conspicuously absent is the SAARC Charter of Democracy.

The idea for a Charter of Democracy was mooted by Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh during the 16th SAARC Summit in Thimphu. The thinking behind the charter was to recognize and reaffirm the commitment of all South Asian nations to democracy. It was drafted by a technical committee in September 2010 and approved by the standing committee comprising of the foreign secretaries of all SAARC nations in February of this year.

The charter contains many important provisions that recognize the supremacy of the respective constitutions, guarantee the independence of the judiciary, and renounce unconstitutional measures adopted in changing the head of a state. Though the provisions in themselves do not mean much in reality, the recognition of democracy as one of the starting points for cooperation is an important step in the actualization of the aims of SAARC.

In identifying democracy as a basis for progress in South Asia, the charter underscores the need for stable democratic governments in an increasingly volatile neighborhood. Almost all the countries face challenges to the democratic institutions established under their respective constitutions that have posed a threat to their stability.

India, despite many shortcomings, has had a fairly successful democracy in over 60 years after its independence. Yet the recent controversy surrounding corruption at the highest levels of government confirms a long held distrust in democratically elected representatives. In Pakistan, democratic institutions have had to grapple with an all-powerful military that has set aside civilian rule three different times. During this time, the constitution in force was suspended. With murmurs of the army stepping in to replace the incumbent in the face of the memo controversy, the future does not appear promising.

After years of civil war in Sri Lanka, the state is only just returning to governance under a peacetime government. The concentration of power at the center and the overarching role of the executive under the system of governance post-1978 are other issues that pose a threat to the operation of a meaningful democracy.

Bangladesh faces a challenge that is perhaps relatively subtler. When its constitution was enacted in 1972, it was hailed as one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. But frequent amendments under different regimes have eroded the ideals espoused in the original constitution. The ramifications of this are felt on a regular basis in a bipartisan political society in which the two parties undo the work done by the other. Nepal and Afghanistan are countries that have embraced democracy and constitutionalism only recently and are dealing with the realities of such upheaval on a daily basis.

It can however be argued that democracy is not a necessity at a regional level. But the countries in South Asia have in their respective constitutions made a commitment to democracy and constitutionalism. More importantly, the recently signed Addu Declaration reaffirms the commitment to democracy that SAARC as an institution made. Sufiur Rahman, the director general of SAARC, noted the close link between democracy and development and stated that democracy is essential to improving the quality of people’s lives in the region. As an organization that seeks to improve the quality of living and achieve economic growth (Article 1 of the SAARC Charter), it would be imprudent to attempt to do so without first ensuring a comprehensive commitment to democracy.

The fact that South Asia is a politically unstable region cannot be ignored. Given the concentration of power in the executive in most of the states, this problem is magnified. This has ramifications at the regional level and within the respective states.

It is important to note that despite SAARC, most of the engagement between states occurs at a bilateral level for a host of reasons. Every time there is a change in the regime in a particular state, its relations with other states are also affected. This is because each successive regime is hostile towards the policies of its political opponents. This does not mean that successful democracies are free of such issues. But constitutionalism and adherence to the separation of powers can reduce the chances of such an event and provide a platform for such issues to be resolved.

The challenge is perhaps more visible at a domestic level. Even a government that guarantees economic prosperity cannot justify making a tradeoff between its citizens’ human rights and economic development in a democratic setup—except in extraneous circumstances. In a government in which the power is concentrated in the executive, there is obviously an inclination to exploit such exceptions to subvert the Rule of Law (as seen in the case of Indira Gandhi and the imposition of emergency, more apparent in the policies of the current Sri Lankan government).

Thus in the interest of better regional cooperation, it is imperative that SAARC take a decisive stand in favour of democracy.

SAARC as an organization has great potential to serve the interests of the people in the region. The presence of the US and EU as observers is a testament to this potential and to its geopolitical significance. For a variety of reasons, it has failed to live up to this potential. But with the Charter of Democracy, the South Asian states have an opportunity to establish a framework for future cooperation that cannot be undermined. While the provisions of the charter and its implementation may run into roadblocks, it is essential to establish a beginning.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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