SAARC Against Poverty & Terrorism

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

NEW DELHI— Poverty alleviation and connectivity were two of the several themes focused on by members of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at two-day (April 3-4) summit hosted by India. The 14th SAARC Summit concluded with inking of two agreements and adoption of a declaration. The agreements are on establishing a South Asian University and a South Asia Food Bank. Asserting that member countries are ready for “transformation of SAARC into an effective regional cooperation,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh outlined the need to focus on people’s basic needs linked with water – including flood problems, energy, food and environment.

During his concluding address, Singh emphatically said: “This summit has given us a new sense of purpose, the hope that we can live in peace, to make the year ahead a turning point in history of SAARC.”

Giving utmost priority to the welfare of the people of South Asia, SAARC members agreed to build a “partnership for prosperity and work towards shared economic cooperation, regional prosperity, a better life for the people of South Asia, and equitable distribution of benefits and opportunities of integration among the people and the nations.”

The key points of declaration include SAARC’s decision to “collectively overcome challenges of poverty, disease, natural disasters and terrorism.” The declaration urges “conclusion of a comprehensive convention on international terrorism.” SAARC members “agreed to work” to “combat terrorism, narcotics and psychotropic substances, trafficking in women and children and other trans-national crimes.”

The SAARC meeting has also been labeled a landmark summit. The declaration welcomes the entry of Afghanistan into SAARC and the association of Iran with the group. The seven original SAARC members are: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. SAARC, set up in 1985 to accelerate regional economic growth, was open for the first time to five international observers–China, Japan, Korea, the USA and the European Union. The SAARC members agreed to hold the 15th summit in the Maldives, according to the declaration. India hosted the SAARC Summit for the third time. The 1995 summit was held in Delhi, and the 1986 summit in Bangalore.

Regarding a food bank, the declaration states: “In order to manage emergencies caused by natural and manmade calamities and food shortages… the food bank will supplement national efforts to provide food security to people of the region.”

As “many sections of women and children” continue to be disadvantaged, the declaration emphasizes that “women’s “empowerment should be a major objective of regional cooperation.”

Expressing satisfaction with the timely ratification of SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Area) agreement by “all member countries,” the declaration calls for its finalization in the services sector at the earliest possible time. The declaration calls for a “comprehensive agreement on harmonizing customs procedures.” A SAARC standards coordination board would function as a precursor to the SAARC regional standards body. The declaration also emphasizes a need “to develop, at an early date, a roadmap for a South Asian Customs Union and a South Asian Economic Union in a planned and phase manner.”

With SAARC goals having the potential to transform socioeconomic landscape of the region, during his address, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz proposed a roadmap with five milestones, which are: “genuine peace and security in South Asia” through “dialogue and compromise;” “build mutual trust and confidence” by removing trust deficit; reinforce and uphold principles of “peaceful coexistence;” “build inter-dependences and sharing of best practices” to “help each other to help ourselves;” and promote a “truly open environment for regional trade- devoid of all types of barriers to free trade.”

“Our goal is build a South Asia which is free from chains of poverty and hunger, where people would take pride in justice and the rule of law, where discrimination and deprivation are long forgotten, where virtue prevails over vice, and where knowledge continues to advance and inspire social progress,” said Fakhruddin Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Chief Adviser. Asserting the need to “combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” Ahmed said: “We should also address the root causes that lead to violent actions.”

Underlining the need to stop “politically sponsored” terrorism in his country, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said: “Our common duty is to fight extremism and terrorism in all forms and sources including political sponsorship and financing.”

Quoting Holy Qur`an, President of Maldives Maumoon Abdul Gayoom emphasized the need to use regional cooperation to address critical areas affecting quality of life, which include environment, gender inequality and poverty eradication. Supporting India’s proposal of setting up a South Asian University, he said: “The university will be a great asset in development of region’s intellectual resources, and a nursery for a revitalized South Asian identity.”

During his address, Prime Minister of Bhutan Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk appreciated “progress being made towards fruition of proposals made by India” at the last summit. These include, the SAARC telemedicine network, South Asian University and SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts. To take the SAARC process forward, he said: “Let us commit ourselves to come up with focused, result-oriented and time-bound projects and programs that bring about tangible benefits to our people.”

In addition to promoting economic cooperation through SAFTA, Nepali Prime Minister G.P. Koirala welcomed the regional energy dialogue begun within the framework of SAARC. Describing “pervasive poverty, hunger, misery, disease and ignorance” as “formidable challenges,” Koirala said: “Let us remind ourselves that the main objective of SAARC is to ensure peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity through regional cooperation.”

Emphasizing the need to curb terrorism, President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa said the effort should be “multi pronged and sustained and far reaching and must include their sources of sustenance.”

Progress made by SAARC in several areas since the 13th Summit were highlighted by SAARC Secretary General Lyonpo Chenkyab Dorji. These include SAFTA having entered into force “providing opportunities to promote and enhance intra-regional trade.”

“Considering poverty alleviation as the over-arching goal of SAARC, the years 2006-2015 have been declared as the SAARC Decade on Poverty Alleviation,” he said.