Economic Development | Speeches

Maximizing SAARC's role in developing meaningful, practical and structured regional co-operation

Address at the Inaugural Session of Eighth SAARC Summit

New Delhi, India

May 2, 1995

Mr. Chairman, Your Majesty, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure at any time to be able to visit New Delhi, but to do so twice within makes it all the greater. It is heightened even further by my coming to New Delhi in order to welcome India’s assumption of the Chairmanship of our Association for Regional Co-operation.

The warmth of New Delhi’s hospitality is well known to all of us. The efficiency and professionalism of arrangements made here for conducting deliberations such as ours as long been a by-word. The conferences that have been hosted here, in this ancient seat of culture and civilization, have brought manifold benefits not only to us in South Asia but to many others who comprise the wider membership of such for a as the Non Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Mr. Chairman, I congratulate you on your election to the Chairmanship of this Eighth SAARC Summit. Your vast experience in regional co-operation and your wide knowledge and deep understanding of the dynamics of our region will be a great asset for us. The inaugural Address made by you today not only reaffirms India's commitment to Regional Co-operation but enthuses us to anticipate that SAARC will move ahead ever more decisively under your leadership.

At the same time, I wish to take this opportunity to express our deep appreciation of the valuable contribution made to SAARC by the outgoing Chairperson, Her excellency Begum Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Her commitment and dedication to releasing the goals of our Association have earned her our great admiration and respect. SAARC owes her a deep debt of gratitude.

Mr.Chairman, we meet at a time when major global transformations are in motion. The end of the cold war era has seen regional identities being affirmed, with the security and economic well-being of people coming increasingly to be defined in terms of their immediate political and economic environment.

Our region was relatively late in entering upon structured regional co-operation. The reasons for that are well enough known to us all. It is for this reason that Sri Lanka has always supported regional interaction at the political level to the greatest extent possible. We believe that it is only by frequent meetings amongst ourselves, when we may confidentially and frankly address all issues, discuss our perceptions, clarify our misunderstandings and resolve our doubts, that we may realistically aspire to developing a sound foundation for meaningful practical co-operation.

To that end, we have always believed that our SAARC Summit Meetings should allow maximum opportunity for such confidence building interaction , leaving formal conference procedures to the minimum. This would enable us to make better use of the other mechanisms within SAARC, such as the Council of Ministers and the Secretariat, and thereby render the work of SAARC more expeditious.

Mr. Chairman, in our region where all of us are concerned with overcoming poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and other manifestations of socio-economic disadvantage, the only solution for salvation lies in vigorous economic activity which transcends our borders. To that end, we have embarked on developing a South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA). The road ahead is a long and difficult one, for our region is characterized to a greater extent perhaps than in any other region. Some of us may have temporarily to limit national options in order to achieve regional objectives. It is hoped that member states which have not yet ratified SAPTA will do so by the end of December 1995, as agreed at the Dhaka Summit, so that SAPTA could be operationalised by the beginning of 1996. A Preferential Trading Arrangement is however but one stage in the development of a free trading area in our region, which should be our goal. Hence, both in order to keep that perspective clearly in view as well as to give SAPTA the necessary momentum towards effective realization, I believe we may do well to consider setting ourselves specific goals to be achieved within fixed time frames, for example by considering the reduction of tariffs to an acceptable percentage to be effected within a specified period of time, to be followed subsequently by the implementation of across the board tariff reduction and other related measures such as the elimination of para-tariff and non-tariff barriers. At the same time it is important to note that trade is only one component, though admittedly an important one, of possible regional economic co-operation. Equally important in the overall picture are other manifestations of regional economic co-operation such at the promotion of intra-regional investment, and the establishment of joint ventures aimed at producing goods both for the regional market as well as for export to countries outside the region.

Mr. Chairman, regionalism which has emerged reinforced with the end of the cold war has itself been carried further with the development of intra-regional partnerships. Linkages have been and are being sought to be forged between different geographical regions and economic groups. We in South Asia must look closely at prospects of interaction with ASEAN and APEC in the light of their contiguity to the SAARC Region. At the same time SAARC would also need to examine ways to greater co-operation with the European Community and the North Atlantic Free trade Association (NAFTA).

Mr. Chairman, all our countries have accepted the role of the private sector as crucial to economic development. In SAARC, we have already commenced the establishment of links between Chambers of Commerce, and further interaction is being explored by the industrial and business sectors of our member states. In fact, with the advancement of this process, I envisage a stage where the role of our respective Governments would largely be to facilitate economic development. To this end, I propose that our Summit agrees to convene a meeting of the industrial and business sectors of our respective countries with a view to discussing ways and means of forgoing greater economic co-operation among themselves and harnessing the economic potential of the region. Sri Lanka would be happy to host such a meeting if the idea is found acceptable.

Of all the accepted regional divisions, the South Asian region has perhaps the largest number of the world's poor with millions of our people suffering from hunger and other forms of material deprivation. Poverty is one of the roots of conflict and destabilizes society. It erodes the creativity and capabilities of human beings. It is therefore inoperative to plan and initiate programmes for the immediate eradication of this scourge. It is in this light that my Government welcomes the proposal made by the Government of India to declare the year 1995 as the SAARC year of Poverty Eradication. The Draft Plan of action prepared for the proposed, which formulates strategies and activities to hasten the poverty eradication process in the region, therefore has our support.

The twin phenomena of terrorism and drug trafficking continue to pose a grave threat to the security and stability of Member States. The phenomenon of 'narco-terrorism' is inseparably link to organised crime, money-laundering and the illicit arms trade. The SAARC Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and on Narcotic-Drugs represent the collective will of our countries in resolutely facing the combine challenge posed by these forces of evil. These instrument remain the fundamental legal basis for the adoption of co-operative measures to combat this grave threat confronting us.

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to adopt domestic legislation to give effect to the SAARC Convention on Suppression of Terrorism. We are about to present in parliament a comprehensive law dealing with drug trafficking, including money-laundering, which would also give effect to the SAARC Convention on Narcotic Drug. Adoption of similar legislation by all our member countries is imperative to discharge our obligations which we have undertaken in these Conventions.

It is also our expectation that we would receive the fullest co-operation of all our member countries in making more effective the regional monitoring mechanism in respect of drug and terrorist offences which we have establish in Sri Lanka. This would facilitate a constant dialogue and interaction among the concerned agencies in our countries, in the task of combating the terrorist and drug menace in our region.

Mr. Chairman, we are approaching the 10th Anniversary of our Association. Customarily that would be an occasion to pledge ourselves a new to creating an even more dynamic interruption. At the same time, it would also not be out of place to indulge in some backward looking introspection regarding how far we have come and whether or not we could have been further along our way.

At the inception of this process, the planners were faced with the practical question of where to start. The question at issue was whether practical interaction in various fields automatically achieves trust and confidence amongst ourselves, or where trust and confidence is a pre-requisite to generating meaningful practical co-operation.

The path on which we embarked was two fold. One was to elevate our interaction as quickly as possible to the highest political level, so that frequent and regular meetings of leaders would help develop mutual trust and confidence, which in turn would create an atmosphere of harmony conducive to tangible co-operation. The other was to embarked upon such practical interaction as seemed feasible at any given time, hoping that the accumulation and combined weight of such interaction would itself engender trust and confidence.

It is my firm conviction Mr. Chairman, that we should go forward pursuing both courses. To that end, I pledge you my fullest support and that of our people.

Thank You.