Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
What a great pleasure it is to visit Pakistan, this great and beautiful country whose people are renowned for their friendship and hospitality!
I would like to thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, and the government and the people of Pakistan for the warm welcome and the generous hospitality that has been extended to my wife and me, and to the members of my delegation.
Allow me to congratulate you on your election to preside over the 12th SAARC Summit. I have no doubt that your great experience and devotion to our common cause and Pakistan’s commitment to SAARC will make a significant contribution to every decision that we make here. The agreements that have been finalised over the past few days have already ensured that this is going to be a ground-breaking Summit.
We owe a debt of gratitude to our outgoing Chairman, the Prime Minister of Nepal, Surya Bhahadur Thapa, for the excellent manner in which he had carried out the important duties of presiding over the Association.
I also recall the valuable contribution made by his predecessors, Prime Ministers Lokendra Bhadur Chand and Sher Bahadur Deuba, since our meeting in Kathmandu two years ago.
I would also like to express my appreciation to the Secretary-General for his tireless efforts in implementing the decisions taken at the last Summit.
The primary goal of SAARC is to improve the quality of life of the peoples of our region. This is a monumental task. For, when all its deprivations are considered, South Asia remains one of the poorest regions in the world. I say this because more than one-third of our peoples are living in poverty, one-quarter go hungry, one-fifth of our children are out of primary school and almost one-tenth of children die before age five.
The irony is that South Asia is one of the richest regions of the world in terms of human resources and cultural heritage. Our natural wealth is immense. The region comprises one of the largest markets in the world. To provide a better quality of life for our peoples, we have to utilise those resources fully. We should also identify ways in which national economies can complement each other. The volume of intra-regional trade and investment must increase. Once we achieve that, not only will market access to our entrepreneurs expand, but it will also help alleviate poverty, and, indeed, bring prosperity to the whole region.
I am very pleased that the framework agreement on the South Asian Free Trade Area will be signed at this meeting. This is a historic achievement. It heralds a new phase in regional co-operation in South Asia. We must now resolutely follow up in implementing the agreement, and move towards our ultimate goal of creating a South Asian Economic Union.
The Maldives attaches great importance to liberalising trade in the region, and emphasises the need for an equitable distribution of the benefits of free trade; hence our call for a comprehensive framework treaty on free trade.
For trade to contribute to prosperity, it would be necessary for it to be not only free, but also equitable.
It is a matter of deep satisfaction for the Maldives that the SAFTA Agreement before us gives the smaller member countries a longer time-frame to adjust to the free trade measures that the other member countries. It is also gratifying that Member States have agreed to establish an appropriate mechanism to compensate for the revenue loss of those countries. The emphasis laid by the Maldives from the beginning has been on the need for the whole package to be addressed comprehensively to suit the needs of all Member States.
When we met two years ago, we noted that the follow-up to the Poverty Commission had been inadequate, and so we reconstituted that Commission with a fresh mandate. We have before us now their report entitled Road Map Towards A Poverty Free South Asia: Our Future – Our Responsibility. The Road Map stresses the importance of effective, harmonious and all-round co-operation among the countries of the region in mobilising the power of the poor, mainstreaming the informal economy, and promoting policies that are gender-sensitive, equitable and sustainable.
Real human development cannot be achieved without mobilising the people, all people. It was with this in mind that the Maldives had called for the formulation of a South Asian Social Charter that will serve as a basis for mobilising the people.
The signing of the Social Charter at this Summit will mark another historic milestone for SAARC.
The launching of the Social Charter will also provide a much needed impetus to accelerate our activities in observing the SAARC Decade of the Rights of the Child. It will further contribute to the early implementation of the two SAARC conventions promoting the rights of the child and of the girl-child which we signed at Kathmandu two years ago.
I am happy to say that the Maldives has ratified both conventions.
We know that the only path of development that is worth following is that of sustainable development. The ecology of South Asia is not only varied and rich, but highly vulnerable. Its environment is not only the habitat of the people, but it also provides them their livelihood. Therefore, preventing environmental degradation must become a top priority.
As a first step, we feel that all SAARC countries must join the Kyoto Protocol and pursue its goals. The early formulation of a Regional Treaty on Environment will be useful in coordinating regional efforts on conservation. We must also achieve a more spirited implementation of the SAARC Environment Action Plan.
In this regard, I look forward to the early establishment of the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre in Male’.
While our countries have made significant social and economic progress in the past, conflict and tensions have threatened many of our efforts. The range of threats that could undermine our economies varies, but security is indivisible. We in South Asia have long recognized the dangers posed by terrorism and drug trafficking. These two evils could cripple any nation. They have indeed caused in a number of countries extensive damage, in human, material and economic terms.
We should, therefore, breathe new life into the regional conventions on terrorism and on drug trafficking to enable our region to effectively deal with these transnational threats. I am happy that the convening of the Summit has provided the impetus to finalise the Additional Protocol to the SAARC Convention on Terrorism, in order to bring our efforts in line with recent international developments.
South Asia accounts for one-fifth of humanity. SAARC must explore ways of enhancing its international identity and presence. The practice of presenting common positions at major international conferences should be further developed. SAARC can also seek Observer status at the United Nations.
Such a move would not only contribute to forging closer unity amongst us, but will also enhance our credibility as a regional grouping.
The time may be right for us now to take a fresh look at the efficacy of the workings of SAARC. The current meeting completes two rounds of SAARC Summits. The first round took only six years, between 1985 and 1991. The second round of SAARC Summits, which began with our return to Dhaka in 1993, has taken over ten years. We should consider what improvements we can achieve in our mode of operation to accelerate the pursuit of the expanding SAARC agenda. We need to ensure more effective follow-up mechanisms, and more robust institutional arrangements to facilitate regular and uninterrupted flow of the work of the Association.
The Integrated Programme of Action is now twenty years old. We can develop it further to make it a SAARC programme of functional co-operation, finance by the South Asian Development Fund, and designed to implement projects that enhance capacity and promote development, and facilitate technical co-operation and assistance in South Asia. It would be one step forward from its current practices. But, it would surely be a vital step.
At the Ninth Summit at Male’, we agreed that informal political consultations made an important contribution to the SAARC process. While we have wisely focused on areas of common endeavour, there is no reason why we should not widen the scope of such shared interests. It is obvious that bilateral relations and multilateral processes will each have spin-off effects on the other. We should make sure that all such spin-offs are positive. We should also find ways in which we can be of mutual assistance to one another, not only in the national interest, but also in the common interest of the region.
At Kathmandu, we discussed the need for SAARC to reassert its credibility. We focused on consolidation. We emphasized the need to give agreed initiatives a fresh impetus. Since then especially in recent months, we have made good progress in a number of areas. Even as we focus on the pursuit of these initiatives, we should not forgo any opportunities that might give rise to new areas of co-operation.
The finalization of a free trade regime and other agreements takes us to the threshold of a new era in South Asia. We should not amble past it without exploring the potential to change our destiny. We have just agreed to expand co-operation in combating terrorism. Is it not time that we considered regional security co-operation also as a common interest rather than a contentious issue? The world is changing, and changing fast. SAARC soon may become an anachronism if we, individually and collectively, do not find the heart to step into the future.
Taking those steps calls for courage, vision, and bold decisions.
If we proceed with determination, trust and good faith, we have nothing to lose, except the baggage of the past and a history of pain and problems. Let us not let that future slip through our fingers. Let us build on the breakthroughs that we have accomplished, and usher in a new dawn.
Over a billion people are depending on that.
There can be no power amidst poverty, or security in deprivation. South Asia needs to focus all its energies on development and to set its priorities right. Our peoples need food, not fighter aircraft; books, not bombs; medicines, not missiles. And they need to protect their environment and their rich culture.
That is the least they can do for their successive generations.
South Asia must boost its strength, not to fight wars or to maim and kill, but to overcome poverty, hunger, disease and despair.
This is not idealism. Nothing can be more real than the need to eradicate poverty and all its ills.
At the end of the day, finding a window to better world for our region is what SAARC is all about.