We, members of civil society networks of South Asia gathered in Colombo to deliberate on a South Asian Regional Agenda for Collective Advocacy on Human Rights, Peace and Democracy,* have resolved to re-energise collaborations across South Asian frontiers for peace, democracy and human rights.
Distressed by the progressive weakening of the inter-governmental SAARC organisation, we resolved to promote the spirit of regionalism among the peoples of South Asia while seeking to re-energise SAARC.
Noting that interactions between South Asian civil society organisations and individuals have declined over the past few years, for various reasons, the meeting recognised the urgent need to promote greater engagement between scholars, activists, professionals and politicians across South Asia.
While the ‘first cycle’ of South Asian civil society activism, which started in the 1980s, developed the idea of regionalism, the participants felt the need for a scholarly exercise to deepen the concept of ‘South Asia’. Such a re-conceptualisation exercise would consider cross-cutting and complementary definitions in order to do justice to the shared history, socio-cultural diversity and vast geography of the region.
The participants believe that South Asian regionalism is more than a ‘romantic’ concept – it has philosophical underpinnings that support the human endeavour towards pluralism, democracy, economic growth, equity and social justice. The concept of region stands against closed borders, divided peoples and delinked economies, which do not reflect the realities of the South Asian past, nor the people’s aspirations for the future.
The participants were convinced that numerous vitally important social, political and economic challenges would be better met under a regional framework, to assist national, provincial and local efforts.
With the India-Pakistan rivalry directly affecting efforts at regional cooperation under SAARC and otherwise, the participants agreed that enhanced confidence between the two nuclear-weapons states of South Asia is also important for enhanced cooperation between all the regional countries and populations.
The meeting stressed that regionalism would benefit the people of South Asia, which contains nearly a fourth of the world’s population. The diverse arena where South Asian regionalism matters include: civil rights, social justice, gender equality, social progress, economic growth, equity, inclusion, local government, devolution, fundamental freedoms, human rights, labour rights, free media, migration, refugees, statelessness, indigenous people’s rights, free and fair elections, environmental protection and climate change – in all of these and other important areas, the regional cooperation will benefit the people of South Asia.
The participants agreed that the concept of South Asia, properly construed, will help fight the challenges of majoritarian populism, ultra-nationalism, interventionism, militarism and the increasing power of the national security state everywhere.
The gathering expressed concern about the continuous political turbulence in each country, which has immensely degraded people’s right to participatory democracy. Examples include the threats to civilians from the state as well as non-state actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the erosion of democratic representation in Bangladesh; the systematic harassment of civil society organisations in India; the reluctance of the Nepali state to promote inclusion as guaranteed by the new constitution; the lack of respect for the rule of law in the transition to democracy in the Maldives; and the constitutional crisis that recently took Sri Lanka to the brink. In every instance, political turbulence weakens the rule of law, access to justice, reinforces impunity, and increases sexual and gender-based violence.
The meeting also expressed concern on the emergence of fake news and hate speech, which exacerbates existing divisions in the region; and on regimes conducting fake election observation to legitimise counterfeit political processes.
The participants agreed that the principle of constitutionalism was increasingly under threat from populist democracies in South Asian countries. They valued the relentless struggle of the citizenry of each South Asian country to protect their fundamental freedoms and safeguard democratic values, and emphasised the need for collaborations across frontiers to protect democracy, human rights and open society.
The ‘second cycle’ of South Asian regionalism must see its role as one of promoting peace, social justice, economic growth, equity, democracy and human rights through trade, commerce, open borders and dialogue between governments and the peoples. This ‘second cycle’ will gain strength with scholarly work on a conceptualisation of South Asia that is based on the region’s history and the peoples’ aspirations.
While SAARC is important, the understanding of regionalism must start with differentiating ‘SAARC’ and ‘South Asia’. While SAARC refers to the inter-governmental organisation of the regional governments and related processes, ‘South Asia’ is a much broader concept that seeks to connect the people of the region with each other and their past, and prepares them for a future marked by peace and prosperity.
Therefore, we collectively call upon the governments of South Asia to:
- Develop liberal visa policies to facilitate people-to-people interaction and engagement and build on the geographic, cultural and historical bonds that exist in the region;
- Explore the convergence of economic interests among the people of this region to promote connectivity and cooperation;
- Host the delayed 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad and facilitate meaningful participation of South Asian civil society in all SAARC processes, programmes and the official summit;
- Work towards a common policy for South Asia on a trans-boundary basis, from resource-sharing to climate change, devolution, local government, fisheries, environmental protection, trade regimes, customs and labour migration;
- Cooperate to develop the highest standards in democratic values, fundamental rights and freedoms, human and civil rights, inclusion and social justice;
- Cooperate to protect journalists and human rights defenders;
- Work to combat impunity for past and ongoing violations of human rights;
- Help each other to strengthen accountability mechanisms for protecting rights and freedoms of all citizens and ensure access to these mechanisms by the vulnerable and marginalised;
- Harmonise national laws with commitments made under international human rights treaties.
- To build alliances across borders to develop strategic responses in defence of human rights, democracy and open society;
- To energise the fight for constitutional democracy amidst the onslaught of radical populism and demagoguery;
- Amidst the downturn in funding support, to work to generate backing for the spectrum of South Asian activities from national and international sources;
- Promote interaction among scholars and activists to rigorously conceptualise South Asia, which will lead to a re-imagining of the idea of a peaceful, prosperous and just South Asia;
- Generate a ‘second cycle’ of South Asian regional cooperation and thinking, challenging the governments together, while expanding the areas where citizens and citizens’ groups can work across international boundaries to improve the social, political, economic and cultural condition of the peoples of South Asia;
- Work together to promote and advocate South Asia-wide mechanisms to address pressing social, political, economic and cultural issues, including the setting up of a South Asian human rights mechanism.
* This declaration emerged from a meeting of regional networks held in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 12-13 January 2019, convened by South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), to develop a South Asian Regional Agenda for Collective Advocacy on Human Rights, Peace and Democracy, and. On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights,
- Lakshan Dias, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR)
- Dr. Aminath Jameel, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR)
- Deekshya Illangasinghe, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR)
- Nastasia Paul Gera, Sangat
- Rita Manchanda, South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR)
- Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International South Asia
- Raju Chapagai, Amnesty International South Asia
- Arjun Bhattarai, Peoples’ SAARC
- Ammar Ali Jan, South Asian Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE)
- Kanak Mani Dixit, Himal Southasian
- Aunohita Mojumdar, Himal Southasia
- Jatin Desai, The Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD)
- Khushi Kabir, Sangat, and South Asians for Human Rights
- John Samuel, Forum Asia
- Evan Jones, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)
- Chandanie Watawala, Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
- Deanne Uayangoda, Frontline Defenders
- Nalini Ratnarajah, International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)
- Bharat Bhushan, Senior Journalist, India
- Hari Sharma, Alliance for Social Dialogue (ASD) Nepal
- Herman Kumara, National Fisheries Solidarity Organisation (NAFSO), Sri Lanka
- Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Journalist/Lawyer, Sri Lanka
- Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Political Scientist, Sri Lanka