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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2613

SAARC paves a smooth passage for itself

By Sarla Handoo - Syndicate Features

The 14th SAARC summit in New Delhi will be hailed as a landmark for a variety of reasons. For the first time in its 22- year history, it witnessed an expansion by formally inducting Afghanistan as its 8th member. Five other counties, China, Japan, South Korea, the US and the EU, attended the Summit as observers. On top of it the summit concluded on a cheerful note without any bickering and rancher. The atmosphere has never been too good for holding the SAARC summits.

Understandably, therefore, the focus of the summit was on poverty alleviation and dealing with the challenge of militancy to be able to achieve the first objective. It addressed both the issues in a forceful way.

Among the decisions taken was to operationalise the $300 million SAARC Development Fund. India increased its contribution to the Fund four times. Japan committed itself to an additional contribution of $ 7 million for promoting regional trade. China saw a “historic opportunity” in South Asia. Its Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing proposed a ‘Cooperation Mechanism’ for poverty alleviation. South Korea’s Song Minsoon emphasized growing mutual interdependence in the region. Indeed, the group started looking beyond the region to speed up poverty alleviation for 1.5 billion people living in it, almost a third on just one dollar a day.

But tackling terrorism is an essential pre-requisite and this realization was more than visible among the members. All the leaders spoke clearly against terrorism and the need to take tough step to tackle the menace. The most forceful of all was the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama.

Equally impressive was the appeal by the Afghan president Hamid Karzai to take the bull by its horns. He spoke of a common duty to fight terrorism in all forms and sources “including political sponsorship and financing”. He emphasized that political and economic isolation of Kabul for decades during the Taliban rule must never be repeated.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz too expressed himself against terrorism and carefully avoided a reference to K-word, though later at a press conference he picked up the usual refrain to argue that “lack of dispute resolution could be a cause”. Bangladesh too wanted terrorism in all its forms to be fought back.

The insistence of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for firm measures against terrorism and organised crime and the need to prevent criminals and terrorists from getting shelter in neighbouring countries finds a reflection in the joint statement adopted by the summit. Yet, what seemed to elude the leaders was unwillingness for a joint response against terrorism.

Pakistan wanted to continue to tackle this issue at a bilateral level rather than have a mechanism at the SAARC level. In sharp contrast, Bangladesh pointed out that SAARC was the right forum to tackle with the menace of terrorism.

Why does Pakistan have reservations on putting in place a mechanism for joint action against terrorism? Why does it refuse to recognize that terrorism is no longer a menace restricted to one country and has to be tackled globally? It is these questions which give rise to suspicions and dilute the fight against the scourge. Until these suspicions exist, the goal of a region free from poverty, illiteracy and disease will remain a distant goal.

Pakistan initially was also against having a SAARC arbitration Council and wanted this too to remain in the bilateral domain. It, however, relented on this issue after insistence from other member countries. India will now prepare a draft convention on mutual assistance in criminal matters which will include extradition of criminals as well.

The Delhi summit, indeed, has left its marks. It signed an agreement to establish a South Asian University. It decided to set up a SAARC Food Bank and resolved to operationalise the South Asian Development fund. It decided to take immediate steps to improve connectivity between the member countries. It also identified water, energy, food and environment as key areas for the next six months.
The tone for such far reaching decisions was set by the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in his inaugural speech when he announced removal of tariffs for goods coming into India from the least developed Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives – without insisting on any reciprocity from them. He also announced liberalization of visas for students, teachers, professors, journalists and patients of the region. Dr. Singh also proposed direct air flights between the capitals of the SAARC member states.

The summit provided an occasion for several bilaterals as well. Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz at his meeting with Manmohan Singh assured that Islamabad would soon return the boats seized from Indian fishermen and issue more visa’s to Sikh pilgrims. They agreed to review the status of each other’s prisoners and continue discussions on Iran -Pakistan- India gas pipelines.

All the SAARC member countries share a common civilizational history. The bonds of religions, languages and culture are common. India particularly shares Islam as a religion with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Maldives. It shares Buddhism with Srilanka and Bhutan and Hinduism with Nepal. The same is true about languages.

SAARC should, therefore, become a springboard for economic development of the region. With 2008 declared as the ‘Year of Good Governance’, the goal seems to be within reach. Only caveat is that all the members should be willing to work with sincerity towards a common goal. Going by the proceedings at the New Delhi Summit a break with the past seems imminent. SAARC surely is gaining maturity to move from words to action, from declarations to implementation.

- Syndicate Features -

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