Vol. 5 Num 520 Sun. November 13, 2005  
Front Page

Leaders join hands to fight terrorism
Pin hopes on Safta to boost economic integration; Dhaka new chair of Saarc

The 13th South Asian summit raised the curtain here yesterday morning with the leaders of the Saarc countries agreeing to fight terrorism unitedly and take bold steps to promote regional economic cooperation.

They promised to build a South Asia where political harmony and economic integration would be the cornerstones of development, prosperity and peace. The leaders also vowed to face the common challenges in order to realise the aspirations of the 1.5 billion people of the region.

At the opening of the two-day summit, the assembled heads of state and government pledged to slash trade barriers with putting Safta into operation from January next to boost the economic growth of a region that is home to half of the world's poor. The World Bank estimates about 50 percent of the world's 1.1 billion people who earn less than $1 a day live in South Asia.

The leaders said the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has started to exude a new confidence thanks to a positive political atmosphere prevailing in the region. The momentum thus gained should be sustained.

They emphasised joining in the Asian mainstream of economic growth and prosperity. The free-trade agreement is a shining milestone in the history of Saarc and, if pursued in earnest, it will inject new energies into our economies, the leaders observed.

Once the restrictions are removed, the volume of trade among the seven countries can rise to $14 billion from the present $5 billion a year, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates.

The South Asian leaders named pulling millions out of abject poverty, combating terrorism and dealing with natural disasters more effectively as the issues of highest priority. They also stressed on a new vision for Saarc in its third decade.

The issue of poverty alleviation featured prominently in the speeches of the Saarc leaders and Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia proposed to proclaim 2006-2015 as the Saarc Decade of Poverty Alleviation. The Saarc leaders welcomed the proposal to form a regional poverty alleviation fund with an initial capital of $300 million.

The summit began amidst the tightest-ever security with observing one-minute silence in memory of the victims of the October 8 earthquake in Kashmir and last December's tsunami of three Saarc nations.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz handed over the Saarc baton to the summit hostess, Khaleda Zia, to steer the seven-nation forum for the next one year. It was her husband Ziaur Rahman who had proposed setting up the forum. Khaleda was elected Saarc chairperson first in 1993 at the 7th Saarc summit in Dhaka.

Before handing over the chair, Shaukat Aziz in his report informed the summit that Afghanistan has formally requested to be a member and China an observer of Saarc.

He expressed the hope that Afghanistan's request for membership would get the formal nod. He also recommended the case of China, terming her "our friend and neighbour."

In fact Bangladesh had mooted the idea of creating the category of observers in Saarc at the 11th summit in Kathmandu and also circulated a detailed proposal among the member states, official sources said.

Addressing the summit, Khaleda as the new chairperson of Saarc said the countries in South Asia are all united on combating terrorism.

Four countries, including Bangladesh, so far have ratified the Additional Protocol to Saarc Regional Convention on Counter-terrorism aimed at curbing financing of terrorism effectively, she pointed out. She then expressed the hope that the remaining three countries would expedite the ratification process so that the instrument could be enforced by the end of this year.

In his speech, Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said no Saarc country should allow its territory to be used against the interests of another member country and there should be 'zero tolerance' for cross-border terrorism and harbouring of hostile insurgent groups and criminal elements.

Nepalese King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev also noted the 'stark reality' that South Asia is 'mired in terrorism', which, he said, has emerged as a serious threat to international peace, security, stability and democracy.

Terming accelerating the economic growth as a major objective of Saarc, the premiers of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan expressed their firm determination to implement the South Asia Free Trade Area as per its schedule in January.

"We must ensure that Safta comes into use as agreed from first of January 2006. We need to take further measures including harmonisation of standards, measurements and quality control, and a regional agreement on these issues should be concluded as soon as possible to facilitate realisation of the objective of the free trade area," maintained Khaleda Zia.

In response, Dr Singh said, "I sincerely hope that Safta comes into operation by January 1, 2006 and this will represent only a modest beginning in terms of our goal for regional economic integration. If we wish to be a part of the Asian economic progress, we must act, and act speedily without any loss of time."

Similarly, Shaukat Aziz expressed the hope that negotiations would be completed in time for Safta to become operational from January. He suggested Saarc adopting an inclusive approach and opening up to interaction, especially with the larger Asian neighbours.

The other leaders taking part in the summit -- Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nepalese King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup -- echoed them on timely implementation of Safta.

Dr Singh said, "The honest answer is that regional economic cooperation in South Asia has fallen far short of our expectations." While Khaleda Zia observed, "Mindsets and perceptions emanating from the past" were affecting regional cooperation.

As natural disasters presented a new challenge to the region, the Saarc leaders emphasised building a regional early-warning centre and cooperation in disaster preparedness and management.

India offered to set up the Saarc Centre for Disaster Preparedness while Bangladesh asked for enhancing the capacity of the Saarc Meteorological Research Centre in Dhaka by networking with other relevant centres to serve as the regional institution for early warning.

The Bangladeshi premier said her government strongly believes that a regional response should be developed to face tsunami, floods, earthquakes, cyclones and other natural disasters in the region.

In response, the Indian prime minister said, "These once again remind us of the need for forging closer ties among ourselves to enable us to pool our resources to deal with such calamities."

Khaleda also underscored the threat to the region's ecological balance arising out of years of neglect and pressure on its natural resources. "There must be conscious and serious efforts to reinforce regional cooperation for the management and conservation of water resources and environment, pollution prevention and preparedness to deal with natural calamities," she remarked.

The Saarc leaders also spoke about setting up new markers for regional cooperation, implementation of the Saarc social charter and energy cooperation. They stressed the need for speedy implementation of decisions and translating them into tangible terms through prioritising, quantifying and evaluating constantly the forum activities.

Former president of Bangladesh and first Saarc chairperson HM Ershad who had hosted the founding summit in Dhaka in 1985 was present at the opening session amongst a host of dignitaries. Former president Abdur Rahman Biswas was also present, but Leader of the Opposition Sheikh Hasina stayed away from the event. Ministers, lawmakers, judges, diplomats, high officials and elites of the city attended the inaugural function.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia addresses the inaugural session of the 13th Saarc Summit at Bangladesh-China Friendship Conference Centre in the capital yesterday. PHOTO: STAR