Foreign Relations | Speeches

Reflection on SAARC's First 10 Years

9th SAARC Summit

Male, Maldives

May 14, 1997

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

This is indeed a noteworthy occasion Mr. Chairman, for you are the first regional Leader who has been elected to preside over the work of our Association for a second term. Allow me at the very outset therefore, to convey to you my heartiest congratulations, and to express my fullest confidence that under your tutelage, SAARC will be enabled to made significant progress. Your innate wisdom and wide experience of world affairs stand reinforced by your exceptionally deep knowledge of the SAARC process, encompassing as it does your involvement with it from its inception. It also bears mention here, that His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and you are the only regional Leaders present on this occasion, today, who were also present at the historic launching of SAARC at Dhaka, in December, 1985.

Mr. Chairman, I wish also to place on record, Sri Lanka's deep admiration for the exercise of SAARC's Chairmanship by India, during the preceding term of our work. That term saw the completion of SAARC's first decade, and I believe it was entirely fitting and proper for the process of review and renewal which marked our tenth year to have been undertaken in New Delhi, where the crucially important political level of our regional interaction began, with the first meeting of regional Foreign Ministers, in August 1983.

Mr. Chairman, it was your initiatives at the earlier Male Summit that set in motion a process of self-analysis in SAARC to make our Association more effective in responding to the needs of the people of South Asia and a means to develop our Association's capacity to meet the challenges faced by us in these volatile times.

SAARC has completed its first decade. The Association has taken deep root in the region and has spread wide, branching out to touch on diverse aspects of life in South Asia. There is no doubt that we have grown and matured over the years. Yet we need to carefully and dispassionately assess the nature and direction of out growth. Does the proliferation of activities over the last decade signify anything more than the growth of barren foliage on a vast tree? What fruit has SAARC truly borne? Do we need to prune those activities which do not bring any significant yield and more carefully murture others which do? (Your Excellency has quite rightly focused on structural changes required in our Association and these will receive our special attention.)

As an Association, SAARC, I believe, is sufficiently mature to assess not only our methods of work and procedures but also our progress on the major initiatives that have engaged our attention. In keeping with global trends towards regional economic co-operation and integration, we have worked on a preferential trading arrangement for the region. SAPTA entered into force at the end of 1995 and we have agreed to transform it into a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) by the year 2005.

The Government of Sri Lanka has sought to involve the private sector, our primary producers as well as our industrialists in the process of SAARC. Sri Lanka's tariff structure is already the most liberal in South Asia. Expectations run high among our people that our partners in the region will demonstrate in practical terms and in good measure their commitment to a true process of trade liberalisation.

In two rounds of negotiations under SAPTA, tariff concessions have been exchanged on about 2000 items. We must critically analyse how successful the process of trade liberalisation has been and what impact it has had on our economies. Many of the items on which concessions have been forthcoming are not among those which have a major export potential for some of our members including Sri Lanka. Non-tariff barriers have remained in place, often negating the benefits promised in the tariff concessions. True progress towards a viable SAPTA, and eventually to the establishment of SAFTA would not be possible until serious efforts towards the dismantling of non-tariff barriers have been set in motion. A third round of trade negotiations are scheduled to commence this month and Sri Lanka urges that obstacles to liberalised trade posed by non-tariff barriers be focused on as a special priority.

Trade liberalisation cannot by itself relieve our region from the poverty that has thwarted the full realisation of the rich potential inherent in our people. We need also to encourage joint ventures on mutually beneficial terms among Members of SAARC, promote intra-regional investment and facilitate co-operation among our private sectors including through Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

We have pledged ourselves to eradicate poverty in SAARC within the next decade. We need to critically ascertain how successful are the many programmes and mechanisms initiated in our respective countries towards this noble goal. Whatever the efforts undertaken by Governments, we cannot succeed unless there is a fundamental focus on securing greater, deeper, more genuine participation by the people in the formulation and implementation of poverty eradication programmes. In Sri Lanka, the Samurdhi Movement seeks to raise people out of poverty and direct them towards self development though targeted State subsidies. It mobilises people directly into the development process and for self-employment and also as active partners in the planning and monitoring of the Government's development programmes. We have also commenced several programmes of Micro & Small & Medium Credit for the youth, where credit and training are given to youths to promote self-employment.

The Council of Ministers has decided to propose that this Summit declare 1997 the SAARC Year for Participatory Governance. This would go beyond the exercise of a periodic political choice through the electoral process. We should also seek to continually engage people in decision making in national development so that they develop a real stake and have confidence in a future for which they themselves would be responsible. In this context, the global campaign proposed by the Micro Credit Summit of February this year to provide credit to 100 million of the world's poorest families, in particular women for self-employment is worthy of our support.

I congratulate the Prime Minister of Bangladesh for her endeavours as a co-sponsor of this initiative. Our experience in Sri Lanka is that credit given to the poor is usually repaid to our lending institutions, vindicating our faith and confidence in the potential of our people and their dignity.

Beyond national programmes, SAARC has sought to foster people-to-people activities which bring South Asians closer together in understanding and mutual interest. The SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, SAARC speakers and SAARC -LAW has achieved much. Sri Lanka would encourage more frequent exchanges of artists, writers, musicians, film-makers and other creative persons particularly because they are able to reach a wider and larger segment of our people. In celebration of our 50th Anniversary of Independence, Sri Lanka hopes to host the First South Asian Film Festival in Colombo next year and we are grateful for the decision taken to support it.

It is a common experience for all SAARC countries that the success of out national development efforts can be blighted by international factors oftern beyon our control. It is important to examine how well SAARC has responded to challenges emanating from the larger environment outside South Asia not only to protect our people from the perils that threaten them but also to benefit from the favourable opportunities that have arisen. On issues where the countries of South Asia share common perceptions, we have echoed them at international for a, projecting the collective concerns of our people. Nevertheless we have yet to establish effective mechanisms for the exchange of views on emerging global developments particularly economic developments which, like recent decisions at the WTO, seriously affect our interests. While Summits and Ministerial Conferences provide opportunities for a broad collective analysis of such developments, a more regular mechanism needs to be devised to evolve specific, focused regional negotiating positions to ensure that out interests do not go unheeded in international decision making processes for lack of clear presentation. We therefore welcome as a first step the consultative process that is to be developed at the United Nations by our Ministers to take full measure of international economic and political developments of concern to us.

In this context, it is heartening that due to our efforts, the Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism adopted at the United Nations last year has taken cognisance of the SAARC Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism which was in many respect a pioneering regional initiative. While urging those SAARA States who have not yet enacted enabling domestic legislation, to do so, Sri Lanka calls for a more determined effort to eliminate terrorism, drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade. We welcome the new international impetus given to the campaign against terrorism at the United Nations following the Lyons Summit.

Co-ordination of counter-terrorism measures among SAARC countries must be heightened. My delegation will present proposals in due course to strengthen regional action on these three evils. The lingering legacies of the past should not harm such co-ordination.

It cannot be denied that, just as we in South Asia were relatively late in embarking on structured regional co-operation, our tangible achievement to date has been relatively insubstantial, especially in the core areas of economic interaction. In both those instances, I believe that what held us back was a lack of sufficient political will. [There are reasons for that, which are well enough known to all of us : these have to do with significant asymmetries of size, resource, development and power, historical legacies of conflict and suspicion and so on. These factors have undermined mutual trust and confidence, and have compounded the difficulties inherent in out regional situation, where the largest member is also uniquely the central and pivotal one within our Association.]

I believe there is only one way to overcoming this problem. It is through frequent, informal and confidential, free and frank inter-locution amongst ourselves, where we address ourselves to any and all matters of common concern, with a view to clarifying doubts, dispelling suspicion and arriving hopefully in time at shared perceptions about ourselves and our region. That way lies our path to mutual understanding, trust and confidence, and thereby to that measure of political will which would impart necessary direction and momentum towards achieving regional cohesion and meaningful practical interaction to our mutual benefit. Nothing in our Charter precludes this sort of informal and un-recorded exchange of views. All that seems to be required is that we allow ourselves more time and opportunity for this at our Summits and Ministerial Meetings.

At the SAARC summit in New Delhi in May 1995, Mr. Chairman, I had occasion to state our view thus:

"Sri Lanka has always supported regional interaction at the political level to the greatest extent possible …… our SAARC Summit Meetings should allow maximum opportunity for such confidence-building inter-locution, 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, thereby rendering the work of SAARC more expeditious."

Mr. Chairman, we approach the new millennium. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are celebrating a half century of independence. The pace of developments in that last two decades has been bewildering and has brought radical and far reaching changes to South Asia. The lives of our Peoples have been deeply affected, but not always for the good. While south Asia's spiritual beritage and its cultural legacies are second to none, our performance in the field of economic development is less than flattering as all statistics would indicate.

South Asia's human resources are rich and the technical capabilities of our People, offer much promise. The potential markets of South Asia are vast and attractive and are slowly drawing in investment, capital, and technology. We have been mired by poverty and social constraints which are now being seriously addressed in all our countries. Each of us have our own development priorities and our own pace of development. The new century must surely belong to Asia. Let us in South Asia seize and develop the possibilities within our reach, to engage fully in concerted political action and economic and technical co-operation, so that we become part of the economic miracle which has begun to appear in out horizon. We owe it to the Peoples we are privileged to represent, to develop the opportunities that we ourselves must create, to make ourselves truly part of that miracle.