India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are commemorating 50 years of diplomatic relations with Japan. How their respective circumstances have changed in that time! Today Japan is the biggest aid donor to South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), several of which are marked by despair at home and disquiet abroad.

The United Nations University, in collaboration with other U.N. agencies in Japan, is organizing an international conference on “The United Nations and South Asia” on Monday and Tuesday. What happens there could shape the contours of the global community in the decades ahead. The sheer scale of the problems and the numbers of people involved are so huge as to pose an intimidating challenge to the core competence of the U.N. as the arena for global problem-solving.

South Asia by itself accounts for one-fifth of “We the peoples of the United Nations.” Developments there cut across the major faultlines of the U.N. system on economic development, environmental protection, food and water security, democratic governance and human rights, nuclear war and peace, internal conflicts, and new security issues like AIDS and international terrorism.

Since the end of the Cold War the global pattern of warfare has shifted to internal conflicts, yet one of the remaining potential interstate conflicts is found in South Asia. The situation is aggravated by the fact that both potential belligerents are nuclear powers. Whereas the Cold War was somewhat stable, the relationship between Pakistan and India is quite different and more volatile. The two countries share a long border, which allows little time to decide whether to use nuclear weapons in response to a perceived threat.

Pakistan and India are actively involved in a territorial dispute over Kashmir that has already resulted in wars. Neither country has second-strike retaliatory capability, which makes them both more vulnerable to a preemptive strike than was the case between the superpowers during the Cold War. The conflict is exacerbated by, and in turn aggravates, domestic political volatility in both countries.

Most of the countries in South Asia have insurgency movements. The separatist Tamil Tiger movement in Sri Lanka is one example, where an ethnic group seeks territorial withdrawal from the state entity. India faces challenges in many regions. The violent Maoist movement in Nepal has been much in the news in recent weeks, and over the last few years many have expressed concern about the “Talibanization” of Pakistan.

The level of terrorist violence across the region is alarming. Allegations are frequently made that governments support cross-border terrorism to undermine neighboring societies. The phrase “aid, abet and harbor” terrorists has entered the international policymaking agenda since Sept. 11. Can the challenge of “political terrorism” be met without addressing the underlying fundamental political issues?

Of the 21 million refugees and others of concern to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees around the world, South Asia accounts for 14 percent, including 700,000 internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Neighboring regions have similar or worse refugee situations that may in turn exacerbate the problem in South Asia. Domestically, refugee flows are destabilizing and, since the 1990s, the problem has increasingly been considered a threat to international peace and security. Similarly, there have been disputes over migration, such as when India tried to limit migration from Bangladesh.

If South Asia poses a challenge to international peace and security, it is also true that the region contributes 28 percent of the U.N.’s total peacekeeping personnel. Three of the world’s top four providers of U.N. peacekeepers are currently from South Asia: Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. What accounts for their continued commitment in light of the marked reluctance of some of the Western countries to accept the burden of U.N. peacekeeping?

South Asia represents 20 percent of the world’s people and its population is growing faster than the world average. The region is characterized by poverty, illiteracy and short life expectancy. How can domestic and international efforts be improved to foster growth and development?

East Asia provides many examples of successful state-directed development. By contrast, South Asia has been notable for the failure of state-managed development. Today even South Asian countries are trying to embrace the market and engage with the international economy. At the same time, and in the opposite direction, they face pressures to adjust to the reality of globalization. The benefits and costs of globalization raise further questions of how to alleviate poverty and promote rapid growth in South Asia.

How can the need to liberalize in a global market be balanced with the need to protect economic sovereignty and policy autonomy, safeguard vulnerable sectors of production and quarantine cultural icons from baleful external influences?

When addressing these problems, the system of government is an integral part of the debate. South Asia has been central to the worldwide debate on bread vs. liberty and, indeed, on whether the choice is a false dichotomy. Does India deserve praise as the world’s largest democracy despite poverty, or is persistent poverty a necessary and acceptable cost of democratic governance?

Similarly, to meet the challenges posed by the ethnically heterogeneous South Asian states, is a strong central government or a decentralized political structure allowing for more self-government the better option? Furthermore, is a secular state or a state asserting a religious identity better suited to face the problems of this region? Given experience elsewhere in the world and the size of the countries in South Asia, will the establishment and consolidation of institutions for protecting human rights be a threat or a safeguard to national integration?

Economic development in South Asia can be closely linked to concerns about environmental degradation. Three major drivers behind this can be readily identified: a very high population growth rate coupled with a lack of appropriate infrastructure, unfettered industrial growth without due environmental considerations, and shifting demographics, including intense urbanization.

Poverty and lack of education further exacerbate adverse environmental impacts. Not without coincidence, environmental degradation also adversely affects livelihoods and the availability of natural resources — forming a vicious cycle of destruction. Examples of these include exploitation of fisheries beyond the rate of replenishment, destruction of mangrove forests and the natural bounty contained therein, and pollution of river systems by urban and industrial wastes.

In addition to affecting ecosystems and economic infrastructure, adverse environmental impacts have serious consequences for public health. The number of people suffering from poisoning by arsenic and fluoride are staggering. Air pollution in South Asia’s congested cities is a major cause of respiratory and cancer-related diseases. Access to clean drinking water remains a formidable challenge throughout the region.

Rising population pressures and increasingly stressed natural resources may cause or exacerbate transboundary conflicts. This is most obvious for sharing water resources and, perhaps, energy resources in the region. The challenge for the U.N. and the international community remains how to solve these problems in an integrated manner, while promoting economic growth and development.

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