On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a democratic regional network of human rights defenders committed to the protection and promotion of human rights at both national and regional levels, we welcome the convening of the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Addu, Maldives from 10th–11th November 2011.
The formation of SAARC in 1985 raised strong hopes among people that it would lead to greater unity, loosening of artificial boundaries, and increased freedom of movement. Yet South Asia, which has a rich diversity of cultures, religions and ethnicities and nurtured pluralist societies, is today marked by divisive relations between governments, discrimination between communities and the persistence of poverty. There is an urgent need for a peaceful environment, people centred development and a meaningful realization of human rights and democratic governance.
At the 16th SAARC Summit held in Thimpu in 2010, the leaders had spoken for connectivity, for a democracy charter and for sharing of resources in order to eliminate poverty and realize justice. SAHR welcomes this development and would like to draw attention of South Asian leaders to critical issues that must be addressed if these goals are to be addressed:
- The effects of cross-border terrorism and extremism in the region especially the long standing hostility between India and Pakistan, has prevented a cooperative approach to addressing violence by extremist groups. Instead each has attacked the other for patronizing violent gangs and tried to gain influence over the smaller countries of South Asia. While SAHR applauds the initiatives taken by the governments of India and Pakistan for dialogue, we respectfully urge that these talks are continued so as to realise the vision of a peaceful and just South Asia. Of concern is also the increased tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan patronising militants and facilitating cross-border attacks.
- Counter-terrorism strategies of states have often depended upon illegal measures such as custodial torture and preventive detention, in contravention of international human rights and constitutional rights. These have allowed impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations. Furthermore people’s protests for justice have been put down by brutal state force. Rather than work towards the promotion and protection of human rights, governments have put human rights defenders under threat, while non-governmental organizations and social workers have been obstructed from working with people.
- Poor governance has kept South Asia mired in poverty, with inadequate opportunities for health care, employment and education. While governments have talked of eradicating illiteracy and poverty and providing employment, flawed development strategies have impeded progress.
- Tension and hostility between different communities generate policies that exclude minorities from opportunities offered by the State. Majoritarian politics has led to discrimination, deprivation of access to opportunities for education, employment and political participation among minorities.
- Conflicts within countries have led to vast numbers of internally displaced persons and refugees, for example Tamils in Sri Lanka, Bhutanese in Nepal, Pashtuns from Swat and tribal areas of Pakistan, and Muslims in Gujrat. It is important that a mechanism be established through a coordinated effort to prevent displacement and to ensure that resettlement meets international standards.
- Land grabbing has deprived ethnic communities throughout South Asia and development strategies have failed to take account the human and environmental costs of displacement which result from construction of dams, exploration of natural resources and export processing zones.
- Visa restrictions placed by governments on citizens of neighbouring countries, and the lack of communication has led to further estrangement. Bureaucratic controls have often led to incarceration of foreigners in prisons, who are denied equal access to justice. A humanitarian approach needs to be applied for their release and repatriation.
- South Asian governments should be more transparent and accountable in the governance process, and more sensitive towards human rights issues in their countries. Experiences illustrate that elections have come to be viewed merely as a means of capturing power through political manoeuvring, with little regard to the integrity of the electoral process, cost of elections or the citizens’ right to franchise. An inclusive electoral process is integral in democratic governance.
After decades of divisiveness and intolerance, there is a growing demand from citizens for unity, tolerance, genuine participatory democracy and human rights. These issues have been raised through citizens’ activism at the national and regional level. They have demanded that the SAARC governments take genuine steps towards reducing poverty, ending communal hostility, enabling freedom of movement within the region, striving for gender equality and for people-centred and environmentally-friendly development.
In November 2010 while SAHR welcomed the inter-governmental process to frame a SAARC Charter for Democracy, it noted that the process of initiating such a charter was ill-designed, if not undemocratic, as it lacks transparency and remains devoid of people’s participation. SAHR further communicated to the Foreign Ministers and Speakers of Parliament of SAARC member states to immediately engage the parliamentarians, civil and human rights activists, opinion makers and other concerned members of society in the drafting process, so that a truly democratic charter inclusive of the hopes and aspirations of the people of this region could be devised and adopted.
Bold initiatives are needed for all South Asian countries to adopt a determined problem-solving approach to resolve inter-country problems. SAHR believes that the SAARC forum can and should ensure that the progress and process of democracy in the region is not hijacked by short-sighted political or economic interests. Therefore we respectfully call upon the SAARC governments to seriously address these concerns and reiterate the need to respect international human rights and humanitarian laws in order to protect and promote human rights, not only within their countries but across the region as a whole.
On behalf of South Asians for Human Rights
Hina Jilani Dr. Nimalka Fernando