Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is always a great pleasure to visit Nepal, a land renowned for the hospitality of its people, and famed for its natural splendour. My wife, members of my delegation and I thank the Government and the people of Nepal, who have taken great care to give us a warm welcome, and to ensure that our stay in this magnificent Himalayan kingdom is both rewarding and comfortable.
On this visit to this beautiful city, and as I set my mind on the important agenda ahead of us, I wish to recall the valuable contribution made to SAARC by the late King, His Majesty Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. As one of the founding fathers of our Association, His Majesty’s foresight and dedication to regional co-operation had exerted a major influence on the formation and evolution of SAARC. King Birendra’s untimely death in most tragic circumstances and that of the late Queen Aishwarya and many members of the Royal Family leave an inconsolable void not only in this great nation, but also in the whole region, and indeed, in the world.
As we gather for the first SAARC Summit of the new millennium, I would like to congratulate you, Mr. Prime Minister, on your election to preside over this important meeting. I am sure that SAARC will gain further strength and direction under your able leadership and guidance.
Our Association is indebted to the leadership of the outgoing Chairperson, President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Her commitment to the ideals of regional co-operation and tireless efforts to keep SAARC on track during one of its most difficult periods deserve our deep admiration.
The Secretary-General of SAARC, Mr. Nihal Rodrigo, has served out his term with a diligence that is worthy of our appreciation. His experience and dedication have been valuable assets for SAARC over the past three years.
I also take this opportunity to express warm congratulations to Mr. Q.A.M.A. Rahim, who will take office shortly as Secretary-General. I have no doubt that SAARC will benefit from his rich experience in international affairs.
Being the only head of state or government who has had the privilege of attending each and every SAARC summit held so far, I feel that I might well be in a position to speak freely and frankly on the status of SAARC.
I believe that we are going through a traumatic phase in regional co-operation. It will take a great amount of energy, persistence and commitment, indeed a Himalayan effort, to re-start what has unfortunately become a stalled process.
But do it we must.
A region that represent one-fifth of humanity is clearly one of great potential. That is the promise that we are seeking to fulfil. But, a region so vast is necessarily beset by enormous difficulties. The fundamental aim of SAARC was and remains finding solutions to those challenges. Caught between our aspirations and the hard realities of the region, the tendency in the past had been to choose targets that were too ambitious to achieve in a short time.
The gulf between intent and result has been magnified over the past three years. In the frustrating drought of that period, regional co-operation had almost ground to a halt. SAARC had stretched its credibility to the limit.
What we do here in Kathmandu will be vital to restoring confidence in SAARC.
As we all know, successive SAARC Summits had identified a range of issues that need to be addressed urgently and effectively. We have never lacked in ideas. But our efforts till now have fallen far short of changing the living conditions of our peoples.
It is time to move beyond the realm of words to the reality of concrete action.
The Group of Eminent persons who had been asked to identify, among other things, an agenda for SAARC beyond the year 2000 reported more than three years ago. They identified key targets to be achieved over a twenty-year period. A full appraisal of their report has yet to take place.
We must leave Kathmandu with a clear vision of what SAARC should and could achieve in the immediate future.
It is my considered view that expediting economic co-operation should remain as the main focus of our activities. The pledges that SAARC has already made on the economic front are substantial.
Redeeming these alone will provide the people greater economic opportunity and improve the quality of their life.
The Poverty Commission reported nearly a decade ago. Yet, the follow up to the Report of the Commission has been inadequate. We must recognise that something more effective than the three-tier mechanism is needed in order to mobilise the people against poverty and towards social development.
The health of the environment is of direct consequence to the livelihood of millions of people everywhere. Extreme weather events have become frequent. However, the progress achieved by SAARC in the area of environmental conservation has been too slow. The Male’ Declaration on the Environment needs to be followed up. I hope that the SAARC state of the Environment Report will be drawn up during the year ahead.
For our part, I am happy that preparations are well in hand in Male’ for the opening of SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre.
A clear social agenda for our region is vital. One size will not fit all. But, we can and must learn from one another, share experiences and conduct joint programmes for common benefit. The Social Charter that we are working on should identify a dimension of action for SAARC as a whole, as well as specific measures for member states.
The Social Charter holds great promise of making SAARC a forum of the peoples.
Revitalizing the process of co-operation in SAARC calls for a versatile approach. Quite frankly, SAARC needs to be more practical, if it is to be of help to the people. We must not forgo what is of direct benefit to the people while we wait for more ambitious schemes to bear fruit. The realisation of tangible benefits in one area will definitely have spill over benefits in other areas. And so shall the tree of SAARC grow.
This is the fundamental philosophy of SAARC.
It is a matter of great satisfaction to all of us that the SAARC Convention on Regional Arrangements for the Promotion of Child Welfare in South Asia and the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution are to be signed today. This is indeed a good beginning to the SAARC Decade of the Rights of the Child, agreed at the Male’ Summit. We must now find ways to meet the targets set out in the Rawalpindi Declaration.
The recent terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, the attacks on the United States on 11 September, and the violent victimisation of the Palestinian people by Israel, and indeed, the assault on Bandaranaike International Airport last July have drastically changed people’s perceptions of the world we live in.
Terrorism must be condemned and eliminated whenever and wherever it appears. It endangers civilisation, destroys peace, subverts democratic ideals and disrupts economic activity. We must support and strengthen international efforts to combat terrorism, and effectively use the existing SAARC institutions and mechanisms in fighting this evil in our region. Indeed, the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism does contain many provisions whose implementation would certainly be of great practical benefit to our peoples.
The menace of drug trafficking is no less odious. Indeed, drug abuse threatens to corrupt our societies beyond redemption. Here again we already possess an important tool. We must make a concerted effort to ensure the effective implementation of the SAARC Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
I believe that SAARC as an organisation must be able to support the efforts of its member states in the international arena to obtain a better deal for our peoples. Whether we are talking about WTO negotiations or other aspects of multilateral endeavour, SAARC must present a common front.
As a small country, the Maldives places great store on what SAARC could do to protect the interests of its members in various international forums. During the last few years, the Maldives has been facing the problem of graduation from the UN’s list of least developed countries. Graduation would impose serious economic costs on the country through the loss of concessionary access to markets and development assistance. Given the present world economic situation, early graduation would magnify the costs incurred by our economy. In making our case at the UN, we were greatly helped by the support that we received from our SAARC neighbours.
What was missing was that SAARC did not have a voice of its own. Even though our region accounts for one-fifth of the humanity that the world body represents, SAARC does not have a status or standing within the UN system. This is an issue that deserves our attention.
The Male’ Summit Stressed the role that informal political consultation can play in paving the way for more effective regional co-operation. Our meetings at the level of heads of state or government surely provide an opportunity to reduce tension, build mutual trust and promote greater understanding in the region.
We must open all doors for fostering a culture of peace and tolerance in South Asia.
On a cool December day in 1985, when our founding fathers gathered in Dhaka to give birth to SAARC, not one amongst us had been under the illusion that the road ahead was going to be easy. Indeed, SAARC was to be built not on virgin land, but on terrain that had been scarred by poverty, war, terrorism and mistrust. Yet, there was hope that out of adversity will be born a better time for our peoples. Foremost was the determination to work together for the common benefit of all our peoples.
As we meet today after an interval of three and a half years, in Kathmandu, in these magnificent surroundings, events have completed a full circle. There are heightening international security concerns. An economic recession is in the making. SAARC must rise to the challenges that we face today. It should be enabled to build a better future for us all – a future where our peoples can prosper in peace, security and happiness.
Indeed, South Asia’s destiny is indivisible. And it is one that we can and must shape together.