By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
NEW DELHIâ€” 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 â€œtransformation of SAARC into an effective regional cooperation,â€ Prime Minister Manmohan Singh outlined the need to focus on peopleâ€™s basic needs linked with water â€“ including flood problems, energy, food and environment.
During his concluding address, Singh emphatically said: â€œThis 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.â€
Giving utmost priority to the welfare of the people of South Asia, SAARC members agreed to build a â€œpartnership 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.â€
The key points of declaration include SAARCâ€™s decision to â€œcollectively overcome challenges of poverty, disease, natural disasters and terrorism.â€ The declaration urges â€œconclusion of a comprehensive convention on international terrorism.â€ SAARC members â€œagreed to workâ€ to â€œcombat terrorism, narcotics and psychotropic substances, trafficking in women and children and other trans-national crimes.â€
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: â€œIn order to manage emergencies caused by natural and manmade calamities and food shortagesâ€¦ the food bank will supplement national efforts to provide food security to people of the region.â€
As â€œmany sections of women and childrenâ€ continue to be disadvantaged, the declaration emphasizes that â€œwomenâ€™s â€œempowerment should be a major objective of regional cooperation.â€
Expressing satisfaction with the timely ratification of SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Area) agreement by â€œall member countries,â€ the declaration calls for its finalization in the services sector at the earliest possible time. The declaration calls for a â€œcomprehensive agreement on harmonizing customs procedures.â€ A SAARC standards coordination board would function as a precursor to the SAARC regional standards body. The declaration also emphasizes a need â€œto 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.â€
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: â€œgenuine peace and security in South Asiaâ€ through â€œdialogue and compromise;â€ â€œbuild mutual trust and confidenceâ€ by removing trust deficit; reinforce and uphold principles of â€œpeaceful coexistence;â€ â€œbuild inter-dependences and sharing of best practicesâ€ to â€œhelp each other to help ourselves;â€ and promote a â€œtruly open environment for regional trade- devoid of all types of barriers to free trade.â€
â€œOur 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,â€ said Fakhruddin Ahmed, Bangladeshâ€™s Chief Adviser. Asserting the need to â€œcombat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,â€ Ahmed said: â€œWe should also address the root causes that lead to violent actions.â€
Underlining the need to stop â€œpolitically sponsoredâ€ terrorism in his country, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said: â€œOur common duty is to fight extremism and terrorism in all forms and sources including political sponsorship and financing.â€
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 Indiaâ€™s proposal of setting up a South Asian University, he said: â€œThe university will be a great asset in development of regionâ€™s intellectual resources, and a nursery for a revitalized South Asian identity.â€
During his address, Prime Minister of Bhutan Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk appreciated â€œprogress being made towards fruition of proposals made by Indiaâ€ 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: â€œLet us commit ourselves to come up with focused, result-oriented and time-bound projects and programs that bring about tangible benefits to our people.â€
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 â€œpervasive poverty, hunger, misery, disease and ignoranceâ€ as â€œformidable challenges,â€ Koirala said: â€œLet us remind ourselves that the main objective of SAARC is to ensure peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity through regional cooperation.â€
Emphasizing the need to curb terrorism, President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa said the effort should be â€œmulti pronged and sustained and far reaching and must include their sources of sustenance.â€
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 â€œproviding opportunities to promote and enhance intra-regional trade.â€
â€œConsidering poverty alleviation as the over-arching goal of SAARC, the years 2006-2015 have been declared as the SAARC Decade on Poverty Alleviation,â€ he said.