Your Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka, Excellencies, Heads of States and Government of SAARC countries, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I bring you greetings from the Maldives.
Mr. President, I thank you, and the government and people of Sri Lanka for the warm welcome and generous hospitality, and the excellent arrangements made for me, my wife and members of my delegation since our arrival in Colombo.
It is of great significance that the Fifteenth SAARC Summit is being held in Sri Lanka to coincide with the proud milestone of the country’s sixtieth anniversary of Independence. I am particularly happy that, by deferring our opportunity to host the SAARC Summit this year, we were able to facilitate Sri Lanka’s wish to host the Summit during this year of special significance for the country. I, therefore, take this opportunity to extend our best wishes of the occasion to you, Mr. President, and to the Government and people of Sri Lanka.
May I also congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, for your unanimous election to preside over this 15th SAARC Summit. You have taken over the reins of our Association at a time when serious challenges are posed to the progress and prosperity of our region, because of escalating food and energy prices. I am, nevertheless, confident that our collective efforts under your able chairmanship shall be able to overcome these challenges.
I would also like to express my deep appreciation to the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, for the exemplary manner in which he has presided over our Association during the past year.
The Maldives extends a warm welcome to observer delegations from China, the European Union, Republic of Korea, Japan, Mauritius and the United States. In addition, today we welcome Myanmar and Australia as new observer states into the SAARC family.
Before proceeding further, I would like to extend my congratulations to the new SAARC Secretary-General, Dr. Sheel Kant Sharma, on assuming his important responsibilities.
Over the course of the past twenty three years, we have deliberated, at great length, on how SAARC could be used as a vehicle for ensuring greater peace, progress and prosperity for the people of South Asia.
I am pleased that over the last two Summits we have embarked on a dedicated mission to make good on our word to make SAARC an effective delivery machine for this purpose. At this Summit, we should resolve to accelerate and expand this process.
Indeed, the theme for this year’s Summit, “Partnership for the People of SAARC”, could not have been more timely, as the challenges of our times demand an increased focus on the needs and aspirations of our peoples. We should, in short, give consideration to the human dimension of the strategic decisions we make at these forums.
Of the many challenges facing us, none is more urgent or has more capacity for calamity than global climate change. One cannot overemphasize the adverse effects that climate change has on fundamental human rights such as the right to life, shelter and a sustainable livelihood.
Science tells us that climate change, if left unmitigated, will have catastrophic consequences for many of us. Paradoxically, global climate change policies are still driven more by economic rationale, than the all-too important issue of human security.
However, I am heartened to note that the recently concluded SAARC Ministerial Meeting on Climate Change is a development in the right direction. The SAARC Environment Ministers recognized that ours is the most vulnerable region in the world to climate change, putting the livelihood of our people at serious risk. I believe, therefore, that our policy decisions must reflect the social and human rights implications of climate change.
Today, the role and capacity of Asian economies have changed considerably. The exponential growth of the region’s population, combined with greater purchasing power owed to economic progress has increased pressure on the already inflated food prices. Unfortunately, the fact remains that, increased food prices affect the most vulnerable and poor sections of our populations.
The SAARC Food Bank is a practical instrument that will help meet the challenges of food scarcity, and lay the foundations for greater food security in the region. Early ratification and operationalization of the Food Bank is, therefore, vital for the sustainable supply of essential food items in the region.
Strategies are also required for efficient utilization and allocation of limited natural resources in the region. Indeed, innovative ideas supported by cutting-edge research will enable us to ensure the welfare of more than 1.5 billion people living in the region.
The other unintended consequence of rapid economic growth in the South Asian region is the high demand for energy, bringing with it a host of challenges, most notably contributing to an unprecedented rise in global oil prices. The question remains as to how we can address the energy crisis without hindering growth and prosperity of Member States. I propose four measures to remedy this problem.
First, we need to greatly ease our reliance on fossil fuels and set tangible targets to harness sustainable alternative energy sources. Second, we need to introduce national policies, including trade reforms, aimed at more sustainable and efficient energy consumption. Third, we should look into developing greater cooperation with other economic partners such as the countries of the ASEAN bloc. Fourth, and most importantly, economic activity must be supported by a desire to protect and sustain the natural environment.
SAARC Member States want to live together in harmony and peace. I believe, therefore, that it is our most important duty to undertake all efforts to strengthen peace and stability in the region and our collective efforts to combating the scourge of terrorism. The SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters will complement the efforts of the law enforcement agencies for greater regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Since its establishment, the SAARC community has generally been progressing in the right direction with major regional cooperation in economic and trade related activities. Looking back, regional economic integration could have gone faster and further. Even today, we need more urgent action to push economic integration forward; otherwise, our region may not stay abreast of global trends.
The way forward is to make deliberate attempts to include other building blocks for increased regional integration via people-to-people contact and interactions at various levels. Two fine examples are the introduction of the Social Charter and the SAARC Development Fund.
The Social Charter must be used as an effective vehicle in ensuring that the economic, social and political benefits reaped are felt across the full spectrum of our societies.
Twenty-three years ago, the nations of South Asia made a promise to themselves. Our dream, based on our common history and geographical proximity, was to build the good society where harmony and progress would prevail. While we have made huge strides in realizing this ideal, there is much that still needs to be done.
We in the Maldives are in the midst of an important transformation. We have established a multi-party political system. We have drawn up a new constitution, which I will be ratifying in five days time. We will be holding our first multi-party presidential election within the next two months. We seek the support of all SAARC countries and the international community to make this transition to a modern liberal democracy, a smooth and successful one.
Our task in SAARC now, is to identify such real terms and building blocks that need to be put in place for the SAARC community to flourish. We must not rest easy with the belief that this process is inevitable; but must strive to ensure that the achievements are irreversible.
Our determination, and our effort, must embody the resolve that exists amongst our member countries to realize our common future together.
Thank you Mr. Chairman!