The forthcoming 15th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Summit in Colombo, Sri Lanka, is crucial not only because of the terrorist violence that continues to pummel South Asia today, but also to decide on the fate of the Saarc Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism signed in 1987. This convention provides for a regional approach to well-established principles of international law with respect to terrorist offences. It has provisions ranging from sharing of information on terrorist activities to extraditions.
Article 8 of the convention emphatically states that “contracting States shall cooperate among themselves, to the extent permitted by their national laws, through consultations between appropriate agencies, exchange of information, intelligence and expertise and such other cooperative measures as may be appropriate, with a view to preventing terroristic activities through precautionary measures”. This convention also led to the setting up of the Saarc Terrorist Offences Monitoring Desk (STOMD) in Colombo in 1990 to collate, analyse and disseminate information about the terrorist incidences, tactics, strategies and methods.
Terrorist activities, both within countries and on a cross-border level, have gone up sharply. Almost in every summit, member States express a serious concern on the spread of terrorism. Despite all this reiteration and commitment by the South Asian leaders not a single action has been taken under this convention. Member countries have not even been able to share basic information. Ironically, after almost 20 years of the signing of the Convention, the New Delhi Summit of 2007, for the first time, talked about “working on the modalities to implement the provisions” of this convention. This demonstrates how Saarc summits have become a meaningless regional ritual.
There is no harmonisation of domestic legislations, including the sanction regime in respect of the convention. There is absence of bilateral agreement on extradition. There are differences on the very definition of terrorism. The STOMD has also remained largely ineffective, defunct and inaccessible. Most of the information and knowledge base on terrorism in South Asia, available in the public domain, is generated by academics and research and civil society organisations spread over the subcontinent.
The increasing ineffectiveness and uselessness of this Convention is reflected in the attempts by various member States to go for bilateral negotiations; the most recent being the ‘joint mechanism’ framework being worked out between India and Pakistan. The only way to come out of this rigmarole is to generate public pressure on the member States to seriously implement the Convention.
Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of South Asians don’t even know that such a convention exists. There is a visible contradiction between the essential Saarc provision that “no bilateral contentious issues will be discussed in the Saarc forum” and conventions like the Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism. The very nature of terrorism in South Asia has a strong cross-border context and content, which is at the core of any discourse on subcontinental terrorism. In such a situation, not discussing terrorism from a bilateral perspective, in the name of dislocating a regional forum like Saarc, would mean sweeping the real issues under the carpet.
Mahendra P. Lama is Vice-Chancellor, Central University of Sikkim, Gangtok.