Economic Development | Speeches

SAARC should lay foundation towards South Asian economic integration

Statement at the 13th SAARC Summit

Dhaka, Bangladesh

November 12, 2005

Madam Chairperson, Your Excellency Madam Khaleda Zia, Your Majesty, Your Excellencies the Heads of Government of South Asia, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to return to your beautiful country, on the occasion of the 13 th SAARC Summit. Dhaka holds precious memories for us in the SAARC family as the city that hosted the first Summit of our Association. We thank you; Madam Begum Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister and the Government of Bangladesh for the excellent arrangements made for our Summit and for the warm and gracious welcome accorded to me and my delegation.

Madam Chair,

I extend to you my warm congratulations on your assumption of the Chair of the 13 th SAARC Summit. As SAARC enters its critical third decade, we are confident that your long experience with SAARC will ensure able leadership for the Association. Sri Lanka will offer its fullest support to facilitate your task.

I wish to take this opportunity to convey to His Excellency Shaukat Aziz, Prime Minister of Pakistan, the outgoing Chairperson of SAARC, and the Government of President Pervez Musharaff, our sincere gratitude for Pakistan's wise and skilful stewardship of our Association over the past year. It is no exaggeration to say that the past year has been a very productive one for SAARC. We congratulate you for your able leadership.

Madam Chair, as we assemble in the capital that witnessed the birth of SAARC, it is only appropriate that we begin by paying tribute to your late husband, who is unanimously recognized as the Founder of the Association. It is our privilege to bestow on the late President Ziaur Rahman posthumously, the first ever SAARC Award. As stated succinctly in our citation to his memory "SAARC will remain a testimony to his vision and foresight".

As the people of India and Pakistan go through the process of rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes, the people of Sri Lanka join me in extending our heartfelt sympathies and wishes for a speedy recovery from the human and socio-economic consequences of these tragedies.

Sri Lanka deeply appreciates the spirit of solidarity and understanding which persuaded you to reschedule the 13 th Summit in the aftermath of the unprecedented catastrophe that struck the Indian Ocean region on 26 th December last year. On behalf of the people and Government of Sri Lanka, I wish to express our deepest gratitude to all the esteemed members of this Association who came to our assistance and contributed towards the relief and reconstruction efforts during that traumatic time.

I consider it appropriate to thank the previous SAARC Secretary General Mr. Raheem for steering the work of the SAARC Secretariat during the past few years and let me heartily congratulate His Excellency Lyonpo Chenkyab Dorji of Bhutan, who assumed the Office of SAARC Secretary General this year. Sri Lanka is pleased to work with him in achieving the objectives of the Association and we wish Mr. Secretary General well in his work at the Secretariat.

As the people of India and Pakistan go through the process of rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes, the people of Sri Lanka join me in extending our heartfelt sympathies and wishes for a speedy recovery from the human and socio-economic consequences of these tragedies.

Madam Chair, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The 13th SAARC Summit takes place in the aftermath of two devastating natural disasters that convulsed our region within a period of nine months. The tsunami and the quakes left in their wake not only death and destruction, but also the unspeakable misery of the survivors and the displaced. These natural disasters underscore the need for greater cooperation amongst our members in disaster preparedness and management, as well as the need for stronger action to protect our fragile environment.

Madam Chair,

These disasters bring to the fore important challenges for the SAARC region. By their very nature, the effects of such calamities do not respect man-made demarcations, be they inter-state or intra State. It is a fact that natural disasters take a heavier toll in terms of human lives in populous and developing States, such as in the SAARC region. We also remain more vulnerable to natural disasters in view of insufficient preparedness in scientific, technological and infrastructural terms. Although our countries have, enacted new legislation for disaster management and preparedness and established new institutions to implement these, we need to enhance regional cooperation, in a comprehensive manner, in terms of awareness, early warning, emergency relief, and long-term rehabilitation in order to complement national efforts. This must be an important item for immediate decision at this Summit.

We need to urgently link our countries to an effective regional and global early warning system for earthquakes and tsunami. South Asia is ringed by the Indian Ocean and we must be alert to the threat of ocean borne disasters. Many SAARC States have critical and extensive coastal stretches. Several initiatives in this regard are at present under consideration within the framework of UNESCO, the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the recent conference on this subject in Kobe, Japan. South Asia must benefit from these global advances in science and technology, and be integrated into these networks. We welcome the Special Meeting of the SAARC Environment Ministers in Male in June 2005, which recommended regional programmes and projects for early warning, preparedness and management of tsunami and other natural disasters. We also need to promote stronger environmental policies that conserve our environment and eco-systems, to complement any disaster mitigation measures that we put in place.

Madam Chair, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

20 years in the evolution of an Association is an appropriate vantage point from which to assess its past performance and to chart the way forward. As SAARC enters its third decade, an important milestone in the life of the Association, it is appropriate that we attempt to delineate its future contours in a collective "Vision for South Asia".

In Sri Lanka's view the new vision for SAARC in the next decade should consist of four main pillars in which we will build a lasting edifice of solidarity and corporation for South Asia.

We envisage a region where people, investments and trade in goods and services will have unhindered mobility across national boundaries, opening up physical economic space for the well being and prosperity of our peoples. Our vision looks beyond regional cooperation in trade under SAFTA, towards a future of eventual economic integration in the region. This will include a mutually supportive process of strengthening the physical, legal and technical infrastructure and overall connectivity in the region.

. Beyond an integrated South Asia, we envisage that building upon SAFTA, the SAARC region will become fully integrated into a future global architecture consisting of major trading blocs. An Asian economic community which will include the SAARC region for example, will constitute the largest consumer conglomerate in the world.

· This process of economic cooperation must advance hand in hand with regional and national level initiatives to address the formidable social and human development challenges we face. Poverty alleviation must continue to remain an over-arching goal of SAARC, as well as of individual SAARC member states at the national level. Sri Lanka too welcomes the proposal to set up a Poverty Alleviation Fund.

· While addressing their material needs, the people of South Asia must become the stakeholders in, and the beneficiaries of SAARC. The people of SAARC must be empowered through a participatory process where Leaders and policy makers will work collectively with the entrepreneurs, professionals, intellectuals and civil society to achieve the objectives of the Charter. We are encouraged by the very active role played within SAARC, even during politically fallow periods, by the business community and professional groups. They have been assiduous in promoting SAARC agendas even when Governments have lagged behind.

In articulating these contours of our vision for SAARC, we envisage an economically prosperous, vibrant and united South Asia, where one fifth of mankind will live in dignity and freedom. I dare to envisage a South Asia where the benefits of cooperation will become so compelling and tangible that the spectre of inter-state or intra-state conflict will recede into obscurity, releasing resources and human energy for wealth creation. Admittedly, this is an ambitious transformation but one that is worth striving for, not least because it has been effected in other parts of the world. I believe we have the ability to achieve this.

Looking ahead I must revert to a theme Sri Lanka has consistently advocated in our past deliberations. We need to consider seriously how we can strengthen the SAARC Secretariat, both in terms of its capacity building and its proactive approaches to implement the decisions taken at the political level. For this purpose, the member states should provide the necessary resources and authority in order to empower the Secretariat to undertake technical as well as implementational tasks. We fully support the efforts underway to strengthen the Secretariat on these lines.

Madam Chair,

As SAARC moves into its 3rd decade, I am proud to have been associated with its collective endeavours for over a decade now.

I hope you would permit a few personal reflections on my part on this occasion. In so doing, I do not want to understate SAARC achievements. Nor do I want to overstate the challenges that remain. There is however, a public perception that our many achievements appear small against SAARC's enormous potential and that we have yet to do enough to keep pace with a rapidly globalizing world where the knowledge economy, technology and unhindered cross–pollination of human creativity have become the driving forces.

At the Male Summit in 1997 I used the metaphor that SAARC is a tree which had taken deep root in the region with its branches extending to a multitude of activities. I also asked myself the question whether the SAARC tree had yielded worthy fruit or was it mostly verbiage and foliage. We also wondered whether some pruning was necessary to those activities which do not bring any significant yield, while we nurture productive branches.

We are endowed with the essential resources, both human and natural, to undertake this task. We must provide political leadership and chart a way forward using the complementaries that are abundant in our region. SAARC can be no more active than its members and their leadership.

It is a matter of great satisfaction for me, to note that all seven leaders of SAARC have today – at this 13 th Summit – expressed their commitment to take SAARC forward not only with the expression of nice words but by proposing political action that could implement. Let us now work urgently to implement these excellent ideas.

Sri Lanka has always advocated that we must move beyond the confines of conventional differences and be pro-active and creative to maximize economic opportunities and to harmonize political views. I must say that we in Sri Lanka, in our modest way have made some headway in this area. We have free trade agreements with the two largest economies in the region India & Pakistan. The FTA with India has been up and running for nearly 5 years now. Despite dooms day predictions about the big swallowing the small, our trade volume has grown up to 1.8 billion dollars and our trade imbalance has dramatically declined. We have now begun to operate the trade agreement with Pakistan. We strongly believe that we should take bold steps to get maximum mutual benefit by synergizing our development efforts through a network of such initiatives.

I, therefore propose that we should fast track our initiatives on the South Asian Economic Integration. We can all draw significant benefits from such a framework given the dynamism and improved political climate we now have in the sub region. There are promising new initiatives that encourage such optimism. An energy pipeline from West Asia running through several countries of our sub region would have been inconceivable a few years ago. A road network running through the ESCAP region was unthinkable, not long ago.

Natural disasters have opened up international borders and blurred intra-state differences which were not imaginable before. Both the South Asian earth quake and the Indian Ocean Tsunami have brought to the fore a magnificent display of solidarity and humanity among our peoples. The apparent divisions long entrenched in borders and long held ethnic, religious and other differences within states have given way to corridors of mercy, understanding and solidarity. The mighty forces of Nature seem to have obliterated the man-made divisions we have erected between ourselves. Could we humans now strive to wipe away the conflicts that arose from those divisions?

I therefore propose that we make this Summit, a bold statement of our commitment to build a South Asia in which political harmony and economic integration would form the cornerstone of development, prosperity and peace. We should do so by announcing more than a 'road map ' for South Asia economic integration. We must ask the next meeting of our Finance Ministers to look at modalities of having a common market in our sub-region that can consolidate the existing FTA's and agree on a course of action that will eventually take us towards South Asian Economic Union. Sri Lanka believes the people of our region can immensely benefit from such an endeavour. The experience in other regions, whether in the case of the European Union, the African Union or ASEAN, tell us that economic integration paves the way for eventual political corporation.

Over the coming months, in the economic and trade sphere, member states will proceed to take appropriate steps to give effect to national legislation to implement provisions of the SAFTA Agreement, so that it comes into effect from 1 st January 2006. We sincerely hope that a consensus will emerge on the few remaining issues on the SAFTA agenda.

In this context Sri Lanka welcomes and supports the request of Afghanistan to take membership of SAARC and the Peoples Republic of China to obtain observer status in our Association.

In the social sphere, member states will continue to take steps to implement goals envisaged by the Social Charter. This dual approach of trade and social progress augurs well for the region of South Asia as it brings together the collective strengths of all our peoples - leaders, policy makers, entrepreneurs, professionals, thinkers, academics and civil society representatives to fulfill the essential principles enshrined in the SAARC charter and SAARC Social Charter. I am pleased to say that Sri Lanka's national implementation mechanism on the Social Charter has now been established.

In fulfilling a long standing pledge to SAARC by Sri Lanka, we have also laid the foundation for constructing the SAARC Cultural Centre at Kandy, just before we left for Dhaka.

On the subject of cultural cooperation and people to people contact, may I also suggest that we provide to our artists every year a collective opportunity to show their talents and skills by hosting in each of our countries annual SAARC festivals of drama, music, song and dance, depicting our cultural heritage. This I think would be an appropriate collective endeavour to encourage our artists and showcase to the world what SAARC culture can offer.

I am indeed truly happy to be among Sri Lanka's closest friends only a few days before I relinquish my duties as President after 11 years. I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to my dear colleagues for the unstinting support and encouragement you gave me and my governments at every step along the difficult but necessary path I chose to steer my country. Your solidarity and friendship provided us the strength to go on.

Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have always believed in SAARC. I have believed in its tremendous potential to ensure the wellbeing of our citizens and to guarantee their freedoms- freedom from poverty, from ignorance, disease and fear.

Today I go with a strengthened belief in our Association. I know that SAARC would soon succeed in fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of its peoples.

The SAARC Charter, which is the Constitution of our Association, commits our peoples and Governments to work together towards finding solutions to our common problems in a spirit of amity and cooperation based on mutual respect, equity and shared benefits. It is appropriate that on this occasion we re-dedicate ourselves to pursue the noble goals, objectives and principles of SAARC.

Excellencies, I believe that our people deserve to re-conquer their past prosperity and our region its past glory and greatness.

May the blessings of the noble triple gem be upon you,

May God bless you


President at the 13th SAARC Summit Bangladesh, November 12-13, 2005