Foreign Relations | Speeches

Developments in South Asian Region

SAARC Inter-Summit Session

Colombo, Sri Lanka

December 28, 1998

It gives me great pleasure to welcome the council of Ministers back to Sri Lanka, this time for their inter-summit Session. The council Last met in our country in July 1998 just prior to the commencement of the 10th SAARC Summit. At this inter-Summit Session, Which Takes Place at The Halfway mark in Sri Lanka's tenure of the Chair of the association, it is only natural That We should We should look back to the situation that prevailed just over eight months ago when the Colombo Summit was due to commence. 

At the time, the international spotlight was sharply focused on South Asia. Just two months before the summit, two of the largest members of our association, India an Pakistan, had proved their nuclear capability. There were many from outside our region who saw this as an extreme dangerous development. There were many who were quick to predict a rapid loss of momentum for south Asian regional cooperation, if not its eventual disintegration. The most extreme elements of foreign opinion even speculated as to whether the Colombo summit could actually take place.

We all know that the prophets of doom were wrong. The Colombo Summit not only took place on schedule bot was conducted in a very positive atmosphere. With the cooperation of all the leaders, we were able to take several practical measures to strengthen our movement. The Summit also provided us with an opportunity for an informal exchange of views on developments within our region. In my own speech at the summit I stated that "we should strive to achieve both economic cooperation and peace and stability simultaneously and not postpone the search for one, while seeking to realize the other". Similar sentiments were echoed by several of the other participants, leading to the summit Declaration which stated that "the Heads of State or Government call for intensification of efforts for promoting peace and stability at global and regional levels for realizing universal progress and prosperity".

Since the July Summit, there have been several developments in our region that have manifested the determination of our peoples and their governments to work for prosperity, peace and stability, in this our part of the word. The fore most among these, of course, is the 'Lahore Declaration' of the 21st the last month, wherein the Prime Ministers of India an Pakistan identified a series of practical measures for promoting friendship between their two countries, on the basis of their shared vision of peace, stability and prosperity for their peoples. We in Sri Lanka see that through this Declaration, the leaders of these two great countries with whom we have the closest relations have opened a new path that their peoples would tread with growing confidence in the years to come.

The Lahore Declaration was preceded by an important event in strengthening bilateral people-to-people contact, namely the inauguration of a bus service between the cities of Delhi and Lahore. On the eastern side of our region there has been a parallel development in people-to-people contact, again through an agreement on establishing a direct bus service, this time linking the cities Dhaka and Calcutta. The transboundary movement of peoples has been a perennial issue in intra-regional relations that has affected not only South Asia but also many other areas. It comes as a welcome development, therefore, to us that through discussions at a high political level between the leaders of Bhutan and Nepal, some common understandings are been evolved on the issue of the movement of persons across their borders. Sri Lanka two has been evolved in this process of promoting good relations within our region. Last December, we signed a Free Trade Agreement with India aimed at the expansion of trade, the harmonious development of our national economic relations. In signing this Agreement, the Prime Minister of India and I were confident that it would contribute to strengthening intra-regional economic cooperation. Sri Lanka has in mind similar agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

 While we in South Asia have achievements to be pleased about in the recent past, recent projections and scenarios for growth, development and equitable distribution of benefits within the global economic system give cause for concern. The February 1999 G-15 Summit in Jamaica referred to increasing poverty and social instability brought about by systemic impact of the prevailing financial crisis, high level of structural unemployment, widening income gaps and resurgent protectionism. Equally subject to questioning are the perceived inequities of the political order. While there has been much discussion on the need for reform of the existing multilateral system, procedures and institutions, there is yet no consensus as to the availability of suitable alternatives. Discussion on issues such as the restructuring of the UN Security Council to make it more representative, taking into the account the vastly expanded membership of the United Nations, Still to continue.

The South Asian countries have, since gaining their independence, an admirable record of active contribution to the process of multilateralism through the United Nations. Our countries have associated themselves with and supported the major initiatives of the UN system. The South Asian countries have participated with total commitment in the work of the UN specialized agencies.

The South Asian nations are not unique in their contributions to UN and its family of specialized agencies. Other regions of the developing world can equally proudly point to their own impressive records. What is striking however is that throughout the developing world the recent trend has been to combine the commitment to multilateralism with determined efforts to promote regionalism and collective cooperation through groupings of States that have distinct commonalities.

To illustrate this trend, we have only to remind to ourselves of the remarkable number of groups, either regional in nature or having distinct commonalities, that individual South Asian nations have become associated with, since the formal inception of SAARC. These are the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Association for Regional Cooperation ( IORARC ), which at present has two SAARC nations among its members; the Bangladesh India Myanmar Sri Lanka Thailand group for Economic Cooperation ( BIMSTEC ) that include three SAARC States, the  D-8 with two SAARC States and the ECO, which has one SAARC State in its ranks. The trend is the same in our regions too. APEC includes members from both ASEAN and the Organization of American States. In Africa as well as South America, sub-regional groupings have arisen. It would therefore not be inaccurate to conclude that developing countries are increasingly exploring efforts for cooperation through groupings either regional in nature or with distinct commonalities, because they see in them building blocks that complement the rather tardy progress of global multilateralism. This then is the task that SAARC has to content with. We in SAARC must determine how best we can contribute to global prosperity, both in the interest of our own region as well as in that of the international community at large.

We in SAARC Face that Task from a Favorable base. We belong to a distinct geographic region with shared civilizational experiences and cultural Values. As modern nations we have evolved systems of administration that uphold the rule of law, promote participatory governance and the values of pluralism. In the sphere of foreign relations we all follow the principles of Non-Alignment.

 I was very pleased to learn to learn that flowing from the decisions taken at the Colombo Summit, our Commerce Ministers have been able to map out a detailed process whereby they and their Secretaries can present South Asian views at the forthcoming WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle in November this year. The concerns that we have in relation to present trends in the global trading system are no secret. These include the absence of a level playing field for developing nations, the conditionalities of an extraneous nature being imposed on access to markets in the industrial world and issues relating to intellectual property rights. Our presentation must not only flag the issues but also demonstrate that sustainable global economic growth demands mutual accommodation, of each others concerns, by both the developed and the developing.

I believe strongly that we in SAARC must rapidly habituate ourselves to the collective formulation and presentation of our views on all maters of concern to us at all relevant international gatherings. A combination of forceful advocacy during the general sessions of the special specialized agencies of the UN family along with active engagement in there technical programs through imaginatively fashioned Memoranda of Understanding, would be some of the appropriate means that we could adopt for forging and expressing unity among our members in their dealings with the outside world.

SAARC has of cause hitherto generally avoided collective intervention on, an even discussion of, issues of a political nature. But as our Association matures and strengthens, there would be no reason to continue to shy away from such issues. At the Male Summit in 1997, the Hands of State or Government agreed on a process of informal political consultations amongst themselves. This commitment was reiterated in Colombo last year. Consultations of this nature when they take place need not be limited to only maters pertaining to our region. We should have the flexibility to discuss maters arising from outside our region that are of common concern to us. On some of them, such as the need for non-discriminatory universal nuclear disarmament, our views within SAARC are already identical, let us try to fashion consensus, including on minimizing situations in which SAARC countries vie against one another for international posts.

Proceeding from our basic objective of promoting a better understanding of South Asian concerns outside the region, I see SAARC concentrating on the process of South-Asian cooperation. This is not a new goal. Many of the discussions in the international system and the efforts to promote a new international Economic Order were predicted on the hypothesis that the developing countries were natural partners for one another, in the exchange of technical know-how and the provision of market access. There was however an over-dependence on government activism towards this end, which in turn retarded progress.

SAARC though has the advantage of its intra-governmental structures being supported by units of civil society that have come together under the banner of regionalism. The professionals of the SAARC countries, such as lawyers, accountants, architects and medical specialists have their own regional apex bodies. The private sectors in South Asia have come together in the SAARC Chamber of commerce and Industry. More and more SAARC  Professional associations are seeking each other out and forging common platforms to advice the interests of their members. This is a healthy development that our governments must foster and encourage.

An important development in the relations between SAARC and ASEAN was the dialogue that took place in New York last September against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly. Both SAARC and ASEAN must actively encourage their own components of civil society to complement the efforts of their respective Secretariats to promote technical and developmental cooperation. Active interaction between the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry on the one hand and its ASEAN counterpart on the other is the obvious immediate step.

The ASEAN countries are our neighbors to the East. To our West, we also have a close neighbouring regional organization, the Gulf Cooperation council. As with ASEAN, South Asia has with the nations of the Gulf too a rich tradition of cultural and trade contacts. In recent times, these contacts have been further strengthened. There are several hundreds of thousands of our nationals, working in the Gulf nations. They contribute to the economic vitality of the Gulf nations. Through their remittances back home they also augment the funds we draw upon for development purposes. SAARC must initiate contacts with the GCC soon, and I am confident that the Gulf Council in turn will respond positively.

We should make contact with the ECO, the Organization of Central Asian States. With them too we have much in common.

The South Asian nations and those of Africa have a history of working together for common goals. We have cooperated in the struggle against colonialism, racism and apartheid. At present we share the same concerns relating to the current global financial and trade scenarios. It is logical that contacts should commence between SAARC and OAU, as well as with sub-regional organizations in Africa, such as the Southern African Development Community.

Looking further away, there is the Organization of American States. Not all of us in South Asia have equally close ties with the South American hemisphere. It is however a region of tremendous industrial dynamism which more over has evolved remarkably progressive models of regional trade cooperation and liberalisation. I hope our vistas will extend to South America in the not too distant future.

SAARC has had useful discussions With the European Union. The dialogue between the EU Troika and SAARC Foreign Ministers in New York in September 1998, paved the way for the subsequent productive meeting in Brussels involving our Secretary-General on the one hand and senior officials of the European Commission on the other. Several areas that include financial, trade and service sectors, agriculture, health an environment on which the two Associations could collaborate have been identified. I understand that the SAARC council of ministers will be invited to give its approval before cooperation in these areas can commence. I believe that we in SAARC have both the capacity and the will to develop a model interaction with the European Union. The scope for mutually beneficial cooperation is ample. The economic importance of the relationship is already clear. There is a reservoir of scientific talent on the both sides that can be tapped for technical cooperation for joint projects. There are also issues stemming from the regulations of the European Commission, especially on standards, that need to be clarified, so that these do not constitute non-tariff barriers to the free flow of our exports to that region.

In our discussions with the European Union we are also due to cover the area of banking  and finance. In this area, the SAARC Network of Central Bank Governors and Monetary Authority Heads should play a lead role, in order that both sides jointly move to a better understanding of the causes, consequences and the corrective measures required to deal with the still unfolding international financial crises. The developing nations, including those of the SAARC region, are extremely concerned at the risk engendered by speculative short-term capital flows, the harmful effects of which fall disproportionately hard on the poor and the vulnerable.

Mutual respect for one another must be the guiding principal of our interaction with the EU which is an organisation of industrialised countries. Only such an understanding will provide a firm base on which to build sustainable and enriching cooperation.

The involvement of SAARC with the world outside our region does not stem from some nebulous notion of promoting international comity. Rather it seems from a measured practical response to the onset of globalization. The phenomenon of globalization ensures that the ripple effect of events in one region of the world invariably impacts on other regions. We cannot react to globalization by seeking isolation. We have to actively involved in influencing global trends. It is also the collective as opposed to the individual intervention which carries more weight and commands greater attention in the councils of the world.

The strength and effectiveness of a nation's foreign policy is determind by the strength and cohesiveness of its domestic institutions, policies and programs. In other words, a weak domestic base cannot support a dynamic foreign policy. This same principal applies to regional Associations too. The respect and attention that SAARC receives in the outside world will in the final analysis be determined by the strength and vitality of the institutions, policies and programs that we build and implement within our own region for mutual cooperation and self-reliance.

There is no dispute that SAARC has traveled for since its cautious, even modest, start. Today the agenda before us is large and daunting. We need to take effective measures to ensure that our intra-regional trade grows meaningfully, in response to the preferential arrangements that have been put in place. We need to ensure that the cooperative atmosphere now prevalent leads to the flow of greater intra-regional investment and to the establishment of joint ventures. Our technical cooperation programs and efforts in the social sphere must begin to show tangible results. We must have the wisdom to evolve for SAARC a Secretariat with the professional strength to guide the Association in the increasingly complex areas of cooperation we have embarked upon.

Last, but not least, we must not neglect to build on and develop our common cultural and civilisational heritage. In the era of globalization, we must guard against the wholesale impact of cultural norms and values from outside. Each nation and each region has its own unique culture that needs to be preserved and nurtured, if we are to conserve the rich tapestry of cultural diversity that makes up the heritage of all mankind.

Much of this agenda has already been taken by the Group of Eminent Persons who were mandated at the 9th SAARC Summit in Male, on the basis of he proposal by His Excellency the Prime Minister of Pakistan, to map out a vision for SAARC for the year 2000 and beyond. The well considered recommendations of the Group have been studied in each our countries. They have been discussed at the level of the Standing Committee and I am sure the Foreign Ministers too will consider them in detail. We in SAARC do not suffer from paucity of ideas. Where we have fallen short in past is in mustering the political will to act decisively and unitedly for the collective good.

This shortcoming has stemmed from the historic legacy of distrust and enmity our region has had to cope with, arising from the immediate aftermath of the time when many of us emerged as independent nations. Other forces external to our region have in the past, for their own partisan benefit, contributed to aggravating our differences.

Sri Lanka is a country in which the philosophy of Buddhism is deeply entrenched. The lives of many of people are guided by the teachings of South Asia's greatest son, Gautama the Buddha. In the Buddhist teachings, as contained in the Dhammapada, it is said:

" If by giving up a lesser happiness, one way Behold a greater one, let the wise man give up the Lesser happiness in consideration of the greater Happiness". 

For far too long South Asia has opened for the easier course, of lesser happiness, of allowing others to exploit our own reservations and differences. The dark clouds that have some times cast their shadow on our path towards friendship and cooperation are now being dispelled. Fresh winds are blowing across our region. They bring their wake the assurance of a propitious new era that will ease the constraints on our working unitedly for the greater happiness, progress and prosperity of all our peoples.

The Council of Ministers must be in the vanguard of this process. I belive that the Council of Ministers is an invaluable political mechanism that is well suited to playing an ever stronger role in guiding the affairs of SAARC, leaving the Heads of State or Government, when they meet, to concentrate on those issues which require political commitment at the highest level.

The Council has a very high responsibility. I wish the Ministers very success in their important deliberations. Let us all work together in friendship and harmony to build a strong and united SAARC, an Association that will bring to the vast millions that inhabit our region the improvements in the quality of their lives that they so justly deserve. They look to us for help. We must not, we cannot, let them down.