On January 11 and 13, 2019, members of the South Asian civil society networks, the NGO Federation of Nepal (NFN), national member of the international network for civil society Forus, the South Asia Poverty Alleviation Alliance (SAAPE) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) gathered in Colombo for a meeting convened by South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) to share perspectives on the strengthening of collaborations for civil societies in the South Asian region. 

Resolved to reinvigorate collaborations for peace, democracy and human rights beyond South Asian borders, civil society networks members and members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) ruled for the development of a collective and regional advocacy for human rights, peace and democracy. Noting that interactions between civil society actors have declined over the past few years, the Assembly felt the urgent need to promote engagement between scholars, activists, professionals and politicians across South Asia. 

Although activism and the concept of a South Asian civil regionalism started in the 1980s, civil society networks representatives considered necessary a cooperation between states and non-governmental organizations. The cooperation should take its roots in humanist values oriented towards pluralism, democracy, economic growth, equity and social justice. Regionalism will have to come up against the closing the borders which reflects neither the history of the region nor the peoples’ aspirations. Social, economic and political challenges will be resolved with the creation of a regional framework supporting national and local efforts. 

With the India-Pakistan rivalry affecting regional initiatives, participants agreed that growing confidence between the two nuclear-weapons states is important for the establishment of an efficient cooperation. The different areas in which South Asian regionalism will play an influential role are: civil rights, social justice, social progress, economic growth, equity, inclusion, local government, devolution, fundamental freedoms, human rights, labor rights, free media, migration, refugees, statelessness, native people’s rights, environmental protection and climate change. 

Fairly construed, a South Asian regionalism will help fight the challenges of populism, ultra-nationalism, interventionism and militarism. 

Moreover, organizations representatives expressed some concerns about growing political turbulences in the region impacting people’s right to participatory democracy. This is the case for the threats made to civilians by state and non-state actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the erosion of democratic representation in Bangladesh; systematic harassment of civil society organizations in India; the reluctance of the Nepalese state to promote inclusion as guaranteed by the new Constitution; violations of the Rule of law in the context of the democratic transition in the Maldives; and the constitutional crisis that recently led Sri Lanka to the edge of a precipice.  

South Asian regionalism should fully embody a role of a peace, social justice, economic growth, equity, democracy and human rights promoter through trade, trade, open borders and dialogue between governments and peoples. The organizations reaffirmed their commitment to the struggle of South Asian citizens to protect fundamental freedoms and democratic values. 

Therefore, a collectively call upon the governments as made to: 

  • Develop liberal visa policies to facilitate people-to-people interaction and engagement; 
  • Explore the convergence of economic interests 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 and programs; 
  • Work towards a trans-boundary common policy based on resource-sharing, devolution, local government, fisheries, environmental protection, trade regimes, customs and labor migration; 
  • Cooperate to develop 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; 
  • Strengthen accountability mechanisms for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is important to ensure access to these mechanisms by the vulnerable and marginalized. 

During the regional summit in Colombo, civil society organizations committed to: 

  • Build alliances across borders to develop strategic responses and defend democracy; 
  • Energize the fight for constitutional democracy against the rise of radical populism. 
  • Establish national and international funding to respond to the decline in financial support for all South Asian activities.  
  • Promote exchanges between academics and activists to conceptualize the idea of South Asian regionalism, and thus promote the peace of the South Asian cooperation. 
  • Sensitize governments to regional cooperation involving citizens and representatives of the civil society in a collective work for the improvement of the social, political, economic and cultural conditions of South Asian populations. 

The Signatories are:

Deekshya Illangasinghe, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) 

Lakshan Dias, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) 

Dr. Aminath Jamil, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) 

Nastasia Paul Gera, Sangat 

Rita Manchanda, South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFR) 

Arjun Bhattari, Peoples’ SAARC 

Ammar Ali Jan, South Asian Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) 

Jatin Desai, The Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) 

Kanak Dixit, Himal Southasian 

Aunohita Mojumdar, Himal Southasian 

Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International Sri Lanka 

Raju Chapagai, Amnesty International Sri Lanka 

John Samuel, Forum Asia 

Evan Jones, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) 

Swarna Rajgopalan, Women’s Regional Network (WRN) 

Chandanie Watawala, ANFREL

Dilrukshi Handunnetti, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) 

Deanne Uayangoda, Frontline Defenders 

Nalini Ratnarajah, International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) 

Khushi Kabir, Bangladesh

Bharat Bhushan, India 

Kalpana Dutta, India 

Hari Sharma, Alliance for Social Dialogue (ASD) Nepal 

Herman Kumara, National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO)

Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Sri Lanka 

* This declaration was adopted on 13 January at the Meeting of Regional Networks held in Colombo, Sri Lanka.