- SAARC was established on 8 December 1985. SAARC mainly aims to promote welfare of South Asians; improve their quality of life; accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development; provide all individuals opportunity to live in dignity and realize their full potentials; and promote and strengthen collective self-reliance. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are its members. Australia, People’s Republic of China, European Union, Islamic Republic of Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar, and USA are observers in SAARC. Nepal is the founding member and the current Chair of SAARC. Nepal has been contributing to regional cooperation under SAARC in line with the goals and objectives of its Charter.
- Summit is the highest body in SAARC held in every two years on rotational basis and is attended by the Heads of State/Government of the Member States. 18 SAARC Summits have been held so far. Nepal successfully hosted the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu on 26-27 November 2014. During the Summit, SAARC leaders renewed their commitment to deepening regional integration for peace and prosperity by promoting mutual trust, amity, understanding, cooperation and partnership. They also reiterated the need for reinvigorating regional cooperation and revitalizing the Association as an effective vehicle to fulfill the development aspirations of its people.
The 36-point Kathmandu Declaration entitled ‘Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity’ was adopted at the conclusion of the Summit. At Nepal’s initiative, cooperation in the field of migration, cooperatives and social protection featured for the first time in SAARC agenda and reflected in the Declaration. Signing of SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity) was an important achievement of the Summit.
Nepal had also successfully organized the 3rd and 11th Summits in Kathmandu in 1987 and 2002 respectively. During the 3rd Summit, SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism was signed which entered into force on 22 August 1988. The Summit commissioned Regional Study on “Consequences of Natural Disasters and Protection and Preservation of Environment”. Two important conventions, namely SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution and SAARC Convention on Regional Arrangement for Promotion of Child Welfare in South Asia were signed during the 11th Summit.
- Council of Ministers comprises the Ministers of Foreign/External Affairs of the Member States. It formulates policies; reviews progress of cooperation; decides on new areas of cooperation; establishes additional mechanism when necessary and also takes decision on other matters of general interest to the Association. Up to now, there have been 37 sessions of the Council held.
37th Session of the Council of Ministers, also known as ‘Inter-Summit Session’, was held in Pokhara, Nepal on 17 March 2016 to review implementation of the decisions taken at the 18th SAARC Summit and the 36th Session of the Council (Kathmandu, 25 November 2014). The Council decided to streamline SAARC institutions and mechanisms and make them more effective, efficient and result-oriented. The Council endorsed the amendment to SAARC Development Fund (SDF) Charter by reducing the requirement of the provisions from three-member criteria to one-member criteria with direct/indirect benefit to more than one member for launching projects under the Economic window of the SDF. The Council recommended locating SAARC Disaster Management Centre in New Delhi, India and merger of Environment Center with existing SAARC Energy Centre located in Islamabad, Pakistan.
The Council has also been meeting informally in New York on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly since 1997. Nepal as the current Chair hosted informal sessions of the Council in New York in September 2016 and 2017 where the Ministers held discussion and shared progress achieved in different areas of regional cooperation as well as reviewed implementation of decisions taken on different occasions.
- Standing Committee is the charter body at Foreign Secretary level for monitoring and reviewing progress of SAARC activities and programs. It gives directives to SAARC mechanisms & bodies, and also approves projects and programs as well as their financing. It is mandated to mobilize regional and external resources and to identify new areas of cooperation. The latest meeting of the Committee (42nd Session) was held in Pokhara, Nepal on 16 March 2016.
- Programming Committee is a SAARC Charter body at the level of Joint Secretaries of the Ministry of Foreign/External Affairs working as National Focal Points on SAARC matters. The Programming Committee meets prior to the Standing Committee sessions or at the end of each English calendar year to finalize calendar of activities, programs and budget of the Secretariat, Regional Centers and Specialized Bodies. Fifty-four sessions of the Programming Committee have been held so far. The last four meetings of the Committee (one special Session and regular 52nd, 53rd and 54th Sessions) were held in Nepal in December 2015, March 2016, February 2017 and December 2017 respectively. During its 54th Session, the Committee made recommendations for the SAARC Secretariat’s budget for 2018. The programs and annual budget of Regional Centres and Specialized Bodies as well as programs/Calendar of Activities of the SAARC Secretariat for 2018 were approved during the Session.
- Nepal hosts SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre (STAC) in Thimi, Bhaktapur. Established with the vision of “AIDS-free generation in SAARC region”, the Center is working for prevention and control of TB and HIV/AIDS in SAARC region. It started functioning as SAARC TB Centre in 1994 and was renamed as SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre in November 2007. Upgrading works of SAARC TB Reference Laboratory at the Center to Supra-National Reference Laboratory are undergoing as per the directive of the 18th SAARC Summit. STAC has provided a common platform for regional and international experts to discuss, share ideas and seek solutions to TB, HIV/AIDS and other respiratory diseases. The Center has facilitated to reach out to people through goodwill ambassadors, SAARC Prize on HIV/AIDS & TB Award, and other awareness raising programs.
- SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu on 16 January 1987. It mainly coordinates and monitors the implementation of SAARC activities; services meetings of SAARC mechanisms; and serves as channel of communication in SAARC process. The Secretariat is headed by the Secretary-General and assisted by eight Directors (one Director from each Member State) and General Services Staff. Mr. Yadab Kant Silwal from Nepal served as the 4th Secretary-General of SAARC from 1 January 1994 to 31 December 1995 and the former Foreign Secretary Mr. Arjun Bahadur Thapa served as the 12th Secretary-General from March 2014-February 2017.
- Connectivity is sine qua non for regional integration in South Asia. SAARC has accorded top priority and made concerted efforts to enhance both physical and people’s connectivity. SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement and SAARC Regional Railways Agreement are at the stage of finalization. Draft text of SAARC Regional Air Services Agreement is under consideration. Implementation of such instruments would enable regional connectivity in a seamless manner and ensure cross-border flows of goods, services, capital, technology and people. The 18th SAARC summit declaration directed relevant authorities to initiate national, regional and sub-regional measures and necessary arrangements for linking South Asia with contiguous regions, including Central Asia, and beyond by all modes of connectivity. The Meeting of SAARC Transport Ministers and Intergovernmental Working Group on Transport to be held in Nepal within 2018 are expected to take up these matters.
- Meaningful economic cooperation is essential to expedite regional integration process. As envisaged in the SAARC Charter, important steps have been undertaken to expand cooperation in core areas, especially in trade, finance, investment and economic activities. The leaders in the 18th SAARC Summit expressed their strong determination to deepen regional integration for peace, stability and prosperity in South Asia by intensifying cooperation, inter alia, in trade, investment, finance, energy, security, infrastructure, connectivity and culture; and implementing projects, programmes and activities in a prioritized, result-oriented and time-bound manner. The Leaders renewed their commitment to achieve South Asian Economic Union (SAEU) in a phased and planned manner through a Free Trade Area, a Customs Union, a Common Market, and a Common Economic and Monetary Union.
A Committee on Economic Cooperation (CEC) comprising commerce/trade secretaries of Member Countries is tasked to formulate and oversee the implementation of specific measures, policies and programs aimed at strengthening and enhancing intra-regional trade and economic exchanges. The Sixteenth Meeting of the Committee on Economic Cooperation to be held in Nepal in March 2018 is expected to advance cooperation in this area.
SAARC Finance Ministers’ Meeting, Inter-Governmental Expert Group on Financial Issues and SAARC Public Debt Managers’ Forum are also working towards economic and financial cooperation. The 8th Meeting of SAARC Finance Ministers held in Islamabad on 26 August 2016 deliberated the issues covered in the declaration of the 18th SAARC Summit including the process towards the SAEU and full and expeditious implementation of South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).
SAARC Finance Ministers also meet informally on the sideline of the Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of Asian Development Bank. The Finance Minister of Nepal chaired the Eleventh Informal Meeting of SAARC Finance Ministers held in Yokohama, Japan on 5 May 2017. The theme of the meeting was “50 years of ADB and its operations in SAARC Countries”. The Meeting laid emphasis on some major issues i.e. improvement of infrastructure, connectivity and creating economic corridors among SAARC Member States, operationalization of the SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS), and finalization of the text of the Draft SAARC Agreement on Promotion and Protection of Investment. The next informal meeting is slated to be held in Manila in May 2018.
The process of expanding intra-regional trade through preferential tariff concession and improved market access was started with the signing Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) in 1993. In view of the limited growth of intra-regional trade, the Agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was signed during the Twelfth Summit in Islamabad in January 2004 together with the aim of realizing South Asian Economic Union (SAEU). The Agreement which entered into force from January 2006 calls for higher level of trade and economic cooperation beyond preferential trading arrangements and promotion of fair competition by removing barriers to and facilitating cross-border movement of goods.
SAFTA Ministerial Council (SMC), comprising Trade/Commerce Ministers of the Member States, is the highest decision-making body for the implementation of SAFTA. A Committee of Experts (CoE) made up of the representatives of Member States provides support to the SMC. The CoE discusses the matters, among others, relating to trade liberalization program, sensitive lists, rules of origin, and technical assistance to LDCs.
With a view to ensuring substantial expansion in intra-regional trade, Member States continue to focus deliberations on reducing ‘sensitive list’, particularly for items of LDC interests; on removing non-tariff and para-tariff barriers; and on providing for adequate trading infrastructures including efficient transit transport facilities.
Recognizing potentials of growth in trade in services in the region, SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS) was signed in Thimphu, Bhutan during the 16th Summit (April 2010). SATIS entered into force with effect from 29 November 2012. The SATIS aims to promote and enhance trade in services among the member states in a mutually beneficial and equitable manner. The Agreement provides for expanding intra-regional investments, and trade liberalization in services sector. Areas such as banking, telecommunication and tourism (including airline services) are considered as major areas of interests in the field of trade in services.
A number of trade facilitation agreements and measures have been put in place under SAARC. SAARC Mutual Administrative Assistance in Customs Matters and SAARC Multilateral Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation are in effect. Agreement on Promotion and Protection of Investments, SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement, SAARC Railway Service Agreement and SAARC Regional Air Service Agreement are under consideration. The agreement on the establishment of SAARC Arbitration Council aims at settling trade-related disputes and the Council is already operational with headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan.
- Given high energy demand and huge energy deficit in the region, energy constitutes another important area for cooperation among SAARC Member States. SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity) was signed in 2014 during the 18th SAARC Summit and is in the process of ratification. It has opened up an avenue for energy trade in the region. Energy cooperation can transform the region’s development outlook.
- In view of its natural beauty, ancient civilization and cultural diversity, South Asia has immense potentials for the development of tourism sector. A joint promotion campaign and marketing is necessary to develop and promote SAARC region as a destination in international tourism market. Tourism has been featuring in SAARC deliberation from the very beginning. SAARC Tourism Minister’s meeting and Working Group on Tourism are working on to formulate regional approach in tourism promotion. Nepal hosted the 2nd SAARC Tourism Ministers’ Meeting in January 2011 preceded by the Fourth Working Group Meeting. These meetings reviewed the progress made in the SAARC Action Plan on Promotion of Tourism. During the 5th Meeting of the Working Group (New Delhi, 25-26 November 2015), Nepali delegation presented an overview of major tourist destinations in Nepal and also highlighted the impact of April 2015 Earthquakes on its tourism business. The Meeting also discussed Tourism Vision 2020 and the need for developing Buddhist Circuit within SAARC. In a bid to promote people-to-people contacts, cultural cooperation and exchange of artists, Nepal hosted the SAARC Artist Camp and Exhibition in Kathmandu in July 2017.
- Agriculture makes a significant contribution to the South Asian economy as well as to the livelihood of its people. This sector provides over 40 percent employment opportunities in South Asia. Large portion of South Asia’s landmass is still rural. The leaders, during the 18th SAARC Summit, agreed to increase investment, promote research and development, facilitate technical cooperation and apply innovative, appropriate and reliable technologies for enhancing agricultural Food and nutritional security as well as promotion of sustainable agriculture are of equal priority within the ambit of regional cooperation. Ratification of SAARC Seed Bank Agreement is in the process. Establishment of Regional Vaccine Bank and Regional Livestock Gene Bank is under consideration. The 3rd Meeting of SAARC Agriculture Ministers held in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 07 April 2016 adopted the Dhaka Statement on Agriculture and Rural Development. The Statement underlines the importance of the operationalisation of SAARC Food Bank and SAARC Seed Bank, strengthening research-extension system, trans-boundary animal diseases, and addressing issues of agriculture trade barriers and exchange of germ-plasms.
- South Asia remains in vulnerable zone to environmental degradation, adverse impact of climate change and frequent incidence of disasters all across the world. The 3rd Summit of SAARC held in Kathmandu underscored the importance of region-wide approach to address issues of environment by strengthening and intensifying cooperation to preserve, protect and manage diverse and fragile eco-systems of the region. The Summit also highlighted the need to work together to face challenges posed by climate change and natural disasters. The Summit commissioned a Regional Study on the “Consequences of Natural Disasters and the Protection and Preservation of the Environment” and the Study was completed in 1991. The 18th SAARC Summit directed the relevant mechanisms/bodies for effective implementation of SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, SAARC Convention on Environment and Thimpu Statement on Climate Change.
The SAARC Environment Ministers’ Meeting and the Technical Committee on Environment and Forestry as well as SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Center are the mechanisms to guide and facilitate cooperation, carry out research, organize training and share information among the Member States. Nine rounds of SAARC Environment Ministers’ meeting held since 1991. The meetings took stock of progress and also made necessary decisions in order to further enhance regional cooperation in the area of environment, climate change and natural disasters. The 10th Meeting of the Environment Ministers is to be held in Nepal.
- Poverty continues to remain a formidable common challenge in South Asia. The region is still characterized as a pocket of global poverty. The leaders of SAARC expressed their strong commitment to realize poverty-free South Asia ever since the first SAARC Summit. At the 18th SAARC Summit, they directed Ministerial and Secretary-level mechanisms on poverty alleviation to revisit SAARC Plan of Action on Poverty Alleviation, taking into account Post-2015 Development Agenda. In this regard, an Inter-Governmental process has already initiated to appropriately contextualize Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at regional level.
- A sizeable number of youth from South Asia go abroad for work. Ensuring safety, security and wellbeing of migrant workers becomes overriding concern for SAARC countries. In this context, our leaders at the 18thSummit agreed to collaborate and cooperate on safe, orderly and responsible management of labour migration from South Asia. During the Summit, Nepal proposed to establish a regional mechanism to work on migrant workers. Accordingly, SAARC Plan of Action for Cooperation on Matters Related to Migration has been finalized and zero draft of ‘SAARC Declaration on Labour Migration’ is under consideration. The first meeting of the Technical Committee to be held in Nepal within 2018 is expected to finalize Draft SAARC Declaration on Labour Migration.
- Cooperatives have huge potentials in achieving inclusive, broad-based and sustainable economic growth and development in the region. In the declaration of the 18th SAARC Summit, our leaders called for sharing of experiences, expertise and best practices in this sector. At Nepal’s initiative, it has become of SAARC agenda and Nepal prepared a Concept Note on ‘Cooperatives’. First expert group meeting on cooperatives will be held in Nepal on 3 April 2018 and finalize modality of regional cooperation in this sector.
- In view of social, environmental and disaster-related problems as well as risks and challenges faced in the SAARC region, adequate social protection is essential. In the declaration of the 18th SAARC Summit, the leaders acknowledged the special needs of elderly, women, children, differently-abled persons, unemployed persons, and persons working at hazardous sites, and agreed to develop and strengthen social protection for them and to share best practices in this regard. At Nepal’s initiative, a draft regional action plan on social protection is being worked out and will be provided to the Member States for consideration.
- Cooperation in public health ensures visibility of SAARC at people’s level. SAARC Member States have ample ground to work on common issues and challenges of public health. The leaders in the 18th SAARC Summit recognized the importance of universal health coverage, improving health regulatory system, preparedness for emerging and re-emerging diseases, and challenges posed by anti-microbial resistance and NCDs.
The Sixth Meeting of SAARC Health Ministers held in Colombo on 29 July 2017 adopted the Colombo Declaration- Calling for accelerated progress on key regional health issues. It was agreed to establish mechanisms to share experiences on development of human resources for health, ensuring accessibility, equity and quality of health care; and share experiences on best practices adopted on health issues pertaining to NCDs, Vector Borne Disease, Sanitation, Nutrition, Climate change and Disaster. It was also decided to work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of this sector through enhanced partnership and collaboration.
The 2nd Meeting of the Technical Committee on Health and Population Activities held in Kathmandu on 5-6 May 2008 deliberated Project Concept Notes on Maternal and Child Health Care and Immunization. The Fourth Meeting (latest) held in New Delhi in April 2015 recommended for setting up of Expert Groups for Vector Borne Diseases (Malaria/Dengue/Chikangunya and others) with particular attention to Malaria, setting up an Expert Group/Consultative Group on Hepatitis and holding an annual meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).
In line with the directive of the Twelfth SAARC Summit and SAARC Regional Strategy on HIV and AIDS, SAARC Goodwill Ambassadors Programme was commenced with the aim of bringing issue of HIV and AIDS to political and public forefront. The Thirtieth Session of the SAARC Council of Ministers (Colombo, 31 July – 1 August 2008) approved two regional personalities: Ms. Shabana Azmi from India; and Mr. Sanath Jayasuriya from Sri Lanka as SAARC Goodwill Ambassadors for HIV and AIDS. In January 2013, three regional personalities were conferred with honorary title of SAARC Goodwill Ambassadors namely- Ms. Runa Laila from Bangladesh, Shri Ajay Devgan from India and Ms. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy from Pakistan.
- Terrorism and trans-national crimes are key security challenges in SAARC region. SAARC Member states have been cooperating on security matters through regular meetings at the level of Home/Interior Ministers, Home/Interior Secretaries and of SAARC Terrorist Offences Monitoring Desk (STOMD) and SAARC Drug Offense Monitoring Desk (SDOMD). At the 3rd Summit in 1987, SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism was signed. This instrument has laid ground for working together for the prevention and elimination of terrorism from the region. Subsequently in 2004, Additional Protocol to the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism was also signed at the 12thSummit in Islamabad. Two important instruments- SAARC Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters was signed at the 5th and 15th SAARC Summits respectively.
The 8th Meeting of SAARC Interior/ Home Ministers, preceded by the 8th Meeting of SAARC Secretaries of Interior/Home and the 8th Meeting of SAARC Immigration Authorities, was held in Colombo on 12-13 July 2017. The Ministers highlighted actions taken to counter acts of terrorism, drug controls and human-trafficking at national and regional level. They also unequivocally condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and called for collective efforts in countering terrorism. The 6th Meeting of focal points of STOMD, SDOMD and 11th Conference on Police Matters are being held in Nepal on 10-11 April 2018 to discuss security-related matters.
- With a view to promoting people-to-people contacts through movement of people across the region, SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme is in operation since 1992. There are 24 categories of entitled persons (Group A-19, Group B- 5) under the Scheme,covering dignitaries, government officials, businessmen, sportsmen, journalists, and heads of institutions/organizations. The Eighth Meeting of SAARC Immigration Authorities was held prior to the Home Ministers’ Meeting in Sri Lanka on 11 July 2017 and agreed to review “Guidelines and Procedures” for SVES.
- Good governance is essential for achieving sustainable development in South Asia. During the 18th SAARC Summit, the leaders reiterated their strong commitment to promoting accountability, transparency, rule of law and people’s participation at all levels of governance.
SAARC Cabinet Secretaries have met four times since 2008 in order to discuss their professional issues such as administrative reform, procedural simplification and implementation of development programs in SAARC countries. Their Fourth Meeting held in Kathmandu in June 2016 shared best practices in their governance system and discussed framework of collective cooperation for achieving regional prosperity and welfare of the peoples. Back-to-back to the meeting, Nepal made a presentation on the performance-based incentive system in Nepal.
Parliament members in the region are also interested in making SAARC effective and people-centred organization. The International Relations and Labour Committee of the Legislature-Parliament of Nepal convened ‘Regional Conference on SAARC Effectiveness’ in Kathmandu on 29-30 September 2016. Chairpersons of Parliamentary Committees dealing with SAARC affairs from all Member States attended the Conference. Prime Minister of Nepal inaugurated the Conference. Regional experts in SAARC affairs presented papers on five topics, i.e. overview of three decades of SAARC, economic cooperation, fostering trust and understanding, deepening integration through enhanced connectivity, and strengthening institutional mechanisms.