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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2964

Not Only SAARC, But Commonwealth Too Must Strike Against Terrorism

Neville de Silva - Diplomatic Editor, Asian Tribune

London, 18 December, ( The Asian Tribune has editorially urged Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa to call a meeting of the South Asian regional organization to discuss the critical issue of terrorism.

The Tribune’s appeal is directed at the President Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka is the current chairman of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which it assumed at the summit meeting held in Colombo last August.

Moreover in the summit declaration issued at the end of the August meeting, the leaders of the eight nations pledged to fight terrorism which it saw as a scourge haunting the region and beyond and agreed to cooperate in defeating it.

Terrorism was and is a fact of life is most of the SAARC nations. The recent Mumbai massacre underlines the need for close and effective cooperation and an exchange of intelligence to combat a menace that is threatening peace and stability not only within SAARC but farther afield in Asia and in other regions of the world.

At the recent Democracy Conference in Bali, the Indonesia president articulated the widely held opinion of the participants when he said that terrorism needs to be eliminated and called for the support of regional countries to combat it.

More recently Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Indian Lok Sabha that there are no good terrorists and bad terrorists, implying that those who used terror in pursuit of political ends were terrorists all the same.

“There could be no double standards in the fight against terrorism,” Manmohan Singh said unequivocally.

While a SAARC terrorism conference would be a worthwhile idea to pursue it would be equally important to widen its scope by inviting as observers or in some other capacity participation from outside SAARC such as, say, ASEAN members and even those of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which is a key regional security grouping and complements various bilateral and multilateral alliances.

While these groupings do strengthen regional security arrangements and provide a useful forum for countries in and around Asia to look at their concerns, it would indeed enhance the fight against the growing menace of terrorism if larger organizations that have the curbing of terrorism on their agenda, complement the work of others.

I refer in particular to the 53-nation Commonwealth whose membership covers all continents. Though it set up a 10-member committee on terrorism (CCT) some six years ago seemingly activated by the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, it has been lackadaisical in pursuing its objectives with any degree of enthusiasm or concern.

It seemed rather curious that it took an attack on a non-member of the Commonwealth to arouse this organization from its slumber. Though members of the Commonwealth had been subject to terrorist attacks long before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Commonwealth only saw it fit to issue pious statements condemning terrorist acts in its member countries but did little else.

Having done its bit- a statement now and then to indicate that rigor mortis had not set in- the Commonwealth returned to its languid ways.

As long as the ‘big powers’ in the Commonwealth were not the victims of terrorism it did not seem to care. But 9/11 activated some of the ‘white’ Commonwealth because it was in a way their patron saint that was the victim and because the ‘white’ Commonwealth or what is known as the ABC countries- Australia, Britain and Canada- joined in the war against terror.

Even then when the previous Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, New Zealander Don McKinnon set up the CCT chaired by Australia and wanted it to function at ministerial level, the same white Commonwealth tried hard to devalue the committee and have it functioning at officials’ level.

This would have made it easy for the political decision-makers to reject decisions taken by a committee of officials.

Fortunately McKinnon who was not liked by the British because he was perceived as too outspoken and brash in his ways, stood firm and defeated the attempts to downgrade the CCT.

As the then editor of the Commonwealth Feature Service McKinnon gave me the first interview in London when he assumed office. During that he made several strictures about the British media (and seemed to hint that this included British officials too) and said the Commonwealth will not be run according to their diktats.

This is one reason the British along with some Africans tried to oust McKinnon from office at the end of his first term and Lakshman Kadirgamar was misled into contesting McKinnon. (I might add as an aside, that I told Kadirgamar in Colombo he was misinformed about the anti-McKinnon mood but by that time he was too committed to withdraw. But that’s another story)

Though Australia has held the chair of CCT for some five years little progress has been made to solidify the efforts to combat terrorism except for the Plan of Action which surely needs to be updated given the current ramifications of the terrorist threat.

In November last year Commonwealth leaders at their Kampala summit welcomed a Sri Lankan proposal to host a conference on terrorism at ministerial level.

Even though the political leaders welcomed the idea as stated in the final summit declaration efforts have been made by some Commonwealth countries to try and bypass this summit agreement by holding a CCT meeting at working officials’ level in London next month which might even question what was agreed at the summit.

Canada has led the charge on this with some support from Australia and the British probably behaving like a duck in the water, all placid and calm above the water level but paddling like hell below to try and scuttle this for political reasons.

That is all the more reason why the Commonwealth Secretariat, especially its secretary-general should take a solid stand in support of the conference. It is not enough Kamalesh Sharma just issuing pro forma statements of condemnation each time terrorists strike somewhere.

It might be recalled that India, one of the members of the CCT, was very much in favour of a ministerial level conference. Now that India has again become the victim of vicious terrorist attacks believed to be from outside its borders, it is all the more reason why New Delhi should press vigorously at the forthcoming London meeting for a ministerial level conference.

Since Pakistan is now back in the Commonwealth fold it would provide another opportunity for a discussion at a political level to coordinate and strengthen the efforts at concerted action.

And in this the Commonwealth Secretariat cannot sit on the sidelines like a spectator. It has to take a committed stand if not for anything else but because fighting terrorism is on its agenda and the CCT is its creature.

Any lukewarm approach would be seen as abandoning its own stated beliefs and it will lose the little respectability it still enjoys among the peoples of the Commonwealth though many knowledgeable people consider it an antiquated beast living on some past glory.

- Asian Tribune -

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