No food, health or education… but defence a priority?


The billions of dollars spent on purchase of arms and ammunition in countries that are member of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), not only fosters aggressive militarism but also takes away scarce resources otherwise available for the social sector and basic human rights.
This was stated by Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) Director Zulfiqar Shah at a press conference at Karachi Press Club on Thursday, where he read out the Memorandum of Peoples SAARC – which was issued for the occasion of 17th SAARC Summit being held at Addu Atoll in Maldives.
Peoples SAARC – a parallel process of the civil society to the official SAARC meeting –holds meetings on the occasion of SAARC Summit and issues its memorandum on the occasion. This year the Peoples SAARC events are being held in different cities of each member country. In Pakistan, the main event was organised at Arts Council, Karachi on November 5.
Representatives from social movements, civil society organisations, labour unions, women’s groups and peasant movements among other working people’s organisations from across South Asia have expressed concern over the growing defence expenditures in the region and called upon the SAARC member states to increase investment in the social sector especially health, education, housing, adequate food as basic rights for a more equitable and sustainable society.
While appreciating some positive developments in the region, the Peoples SAARC has also expressed serious concerns over the actions taken by the member states and events that bear negatively on fundamental human rights, including right to life, right to equality and access to basic services.
“India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal continue to be mired by internal conflicts with rates much higher than expected for their stage of development. The handling of the ongoing conflict in Pakistan (Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), India (Maoist insurgency in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa) and the post-conflict phase in Sri Lanka and Nepal all have raised serious questions regarding fundamental human rights of the population affected by conflicts.”
“As an expression of commitment to international cultural, social and economic rights of people, SAARC must promptly adopt credible measures to implement the SAARC Social Charter in all countries without discrimination between citizens and immigrants, stressing affirmative action for indigenous people.”
The Peoples SAARC also expressed alarm over the increasing defence budgets, nuclear armament, food insecurity, climate change and environmental concerns, compromised human development, internal conflicts and growing corporatism in South Asian countries.
“In terms of military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), Pakistan spends the highest at 3.2 percent of GDP; Sri Lanka 2.9 percent; India 2.7 percent; Nepal 1.7 percent; Afghanistan 1.5 percent; and Bangladesh 1 percent; whereas, in the region, 260 million people lack access to rudimentary health facilities, 337 million lack safe drinking water, over 400 million people go hungry every day and the average public health expenditure stands at 1.7 percent of the region’s GDP – an astronomical allocation to defence expenditure that stands around $40 billion is highly atrocious and unjust.”
Appreciating that the eight SAARC countries – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives and Bhutan – have elected representatives, the Peoples SAARC also lauded the recent spate of developments in the bilateral relations of a number of South Asian states.
It also appreciated the facilitation of overland transit to Nepal from Bangladesh; the restoration of the dialogue process between Pakistan and India, the execution of Afghan Transit Trade along with improved political links between Pakistan and Afghanistan; the end of civil war in Sri Lanka; and the continuation and expansion of opened borders with Bhutan and Nepal.
The memorandum called upon the South Asian states to ensure the rights of all workers, especially women and Hindu Dalit workers, in accordance with international standards including International Labour Organisation conventions, international covenants and national constitutions. “Fisherfolk rights to fish in territorial waters should be recognised and legally protected through proper mechanisms. Innocent fisherfolk incarcerated for wandering into neighbouring, sometimes disputed, territorial waters be immediately released and the presence of deep sea trawlers and foreign vessels banned as these are depleting fish stock and pursuing an unsustainable path apart from severely diminishing the catch of the ordinary fisherfolk.”
Peoples SAARC recommended that the South Asian states must respect the right to mobility with dignity as a human right. “Migrants should be assured of dignity and the right to work as well as physical protection, basic amenities and adequate wages. Victims of trafficking, especially women and children must be protected and similarly the rights of individuals and communities subject to forced displacement, disasters and forced eviction should be protected.”
Underlining the need that South Asian governments and civil society must work together and lead the world in the struggle for climate justice, the forum demanded legal international standards on the lines of and beyond the Kyoto Protocol and not succumbing to the machinations of the perpetrators who want to push for accords in place of treaties.
They called for the South Asian states to recognise the universality of opportunity, equal rights and dignity of all people, including excluded groups and minorities, and ethnic, sexual and the differently-abled. “We urge the SAARC states to recognise the prevalence of patriarchy, masculinity, religious extremism and caste-based discrimination that deny human dignity, socio-economic and political equality and justice to the millions of backward classes in the SAARC countries.”
All SAARC countries are suffering the economic travails of neo-liberal economic policies with rampant poverty, marginalising a large section of the population, especially women and girls. “It is time that we develop new paradigms of peaceful, equitable, and sustainable paths of development that truly reflect the economic potential of our countries and meet the needs of our peoples.”
The Peoples SAARC stated that unfortunately the South Asian governments have taken no urgent steps towards reversing ecological degradation, reduction in greenhouse gases emission, all necessitating more sustainable forms of transport, construction, workers and peasants conditions and mining among others. It is imperative that vast areas of Bangladesh, parts of India and island states in the Indian Ocean are not submerged because of a lack of commitment by the states to address environmental concerns, it said.
The forum called upon the need for alternate regional trade and economic framework that meets the needs and aspirations of small and medium producers and labour. “The SAARC states need to work out fair trade relations within South Asia as a precondition for fair trade relations with the rest of the world that would also provide a democratic alternative to exploitative and regressive free trade agreements.”
Terming terrorism as a serious problem in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, the Peoples SAARC stated the need for dialogue where militant movements involve alienation or deprivation of natural resources. “We urge the South Asian governments to shun military means as a method of countering them and only fundamentalist movements refusing dialogue should be suppressed.”


  1. This is good article by kazi Asif. Through this i come to know about Peoples SAARC. No doubt,SAARC countries should review their priorities regarding the betterment and sustainable development of their people.Employment opportunities should be widened and people should be motivated to participate in day to day affairs of their respective states.This is the only way to avoid the present wave of terrorism and violence. I am very much convinced of the Peoples SAARC, i offer my services at any level. Thank you.

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