The three-day SAARC Summit in Kathmandu ends with member-states re-affirming their commitment to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
UNCERTAINTY prevailed until the eleventh hour regarding the conduct of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, 2002. The arrest of an official working in the Pakistani embassy in Kathmandu on the charge of possessing counterfeit Indian and U.S. currency on January 3, a day before the formal opening of the summit, had threatened to derail the meet. Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf told mediapersons in Kathmandu that the incident was a "crude attempt" to sabotage the summit. The Pakistani official was promptly released and, according to Musharraf, the Nepalese authorities had promised to take action against those responsible for the incident.
Until the last week of December a question mark was hanging over India's participation in the summit. The December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament House had threatened to disrupt the summit yet again as war clouds loomed. However, the Indian government took into account the fact that Nepal had done considerable groundwork for the summit. According to Nepal government officials, the cash-strapped government had spent about $3 million to prepare for the summit. Moreover, the government had decided to go ahead with it despite threats from the Maoist insurgents. The Nepali capital was spruced up for the events, with roads widened and security further tightened.
After the decision to participate in the summit was taken, senior Indian government officials announced before hand that there would not be any meeting between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Pakistan President on the sidelines of the summit. In fact, the seating arrangements were made in such a way that the Indian and Pakistani leaders would have the minimum possible contact. As was the case at earlier SAARC summits, India-Pakistan relations remained centrestage. Indeed, the problems between its two largest member-countries have adversely impacted on the progress of SAARC, whose primary goal is economic integration. Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, talking to mediapersons after the summit, said that the very fact that the summit took place, notwithstanding the prevailing circumstances, was an achievement. He expressed the hope that the success of the summit would help reduce tensions in the South Asian region.
Although poverty alleviation is high on the SAARC agenda, the region is among the poorest in the world. According to a recent World Bank report, more than 500 million people in the South Asian region live below the poverty line. The South Asian region has more than 50 per cent of the total world population of child workers. Around 130 million child workers toil for two meals every day. Although SAARC has made it a priority issue, trafficking in women continues to be an issue of concern in the region. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) has not taken off and illiteracy has yet to be tackled in earnest. Moreover, the question of human rights violations has not yet received the attention it deserves.
HOWEVER, the main focus of the Kathmandu event was on terrorism. Almost all the countries in the region have been affected by terrorism in varying degrees. In fact, each of the leaders dwelt on it in their speeches at the opening of the summit.
President Musharraf, whose delayed arrival had caused the postponement of the inauguration of the summit by a day, said in his opening speech on January 4 that his country "strongly condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations". "We regard it as a grave threat to civil society," he said. At the same time, he emphasised that the "causes" of terrorism should be investigated - including the symptoms and the malaise. He added that "peace and tranquillity between Pakistan and India are essential for progress in South Asia". He said that the "only consolation" from the Agra Summit was the revival of the SAARC process. However, given the tense atmosphere in the region, Musharraf's forthright views were not considered to be very diplomatic. He said that no single member-country of SAARC should be allowed to dominate the grouping.
CRITICISING the "unprecedented delay" in the holding of the SAARC summit, Musharraf said: "It is unfortunate that the delay was caused by factors extraneous to both the Association and its charter." He said that SAARC summits should be held every year as per Article 3 of the SAARC charter even if any head of state or government finds it inconvenient to attend. "Using internal developments in any one country as a pretext to disrupt the SAARC process should be unacceptable." He said that he was against "any attempt to dilute the principle of sovereign equality of member-states" and that no state should "consider itself more equal than others".
Musharraf's tough stance seemed to have been tempered to some extent when he extended his "hand of friendship from the exalted forum of SAARC" to the Indian Prime Minister after speaking at the opening of the summit. Musharraf's gesture was greeted with loud applause, especially by the assembled dignitaries from the smaller SAARC countries.
Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who spoke after the Pakistan President, also focussed on the issue of terrorism. She warned the assembled leaders that "perceived injustice would evolve into violence". Quoting Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, she said that "despair and vengeance lead to terrorism". At the same time, the Sri Lankan President criticised the West for the double standards it practised on the issue of terrorism.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was also forthright in expressing her views. She said that SAARC had not achieved anything substantive since it was formed. It is yet to formulate, let alone implement, a single regional project, and "national self-assertion still impedes regional cooperation". She added that SAARC had not made any progress in its stated goal of alleviating poverty.
Addressing the inaugural ceremony, Prime Minister Vajpayee departed from his prepared text to react to the surprise offer of "genuine, sincere friendship" from the Pakistani President. "I am glad that President Musharraf extended a hand of friendship to me," he said. "I have shaken his hand in your presence. Now President Musharraf must follow this gesture by not permitting any activity in Pakistan or any territory it controls today which enables terrorists to perpetrate mindless violence in India. I went to Lahore with a hand of friendship. We were rewarded by aggression in Kargil and the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu. I invited President Musharraf to Agra. We were rewarded with a terrorist attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and, last month, on the Parliament of India," said Vajpayee, at the end of his speech.
Vajpayee followed up his tough stance by staying away from the "mini-retreat" of SAARC leaders which took place later in the day on January 4. (A full-day retreat of the SAARC leaders had to be cancelled owing to the late arrival of the Pakistan President to Kathmandu. Pakistani officials said that Musharraf's plane was delayed owing to foggy conditions in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Musharraf had to take a detour via China to reach Nepal as Indian air space was closed to Pakistani commercial traffic from January 1.) However, Vajpayee took the initiative at the closing session of the summit to shake hands with Musharraf and exchange greetings. Again the gesture was greeted with applause by the assembled dignitaries.
The President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was also of the view that the issue of terrorism should not be seen in isolation. He spoke about the agony of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. "Terrorism must be condemned wherever it occurs," said Gayoom. Significantly, the Declaration issued at the end of the summit expressed concern over the continued bloodshed in West Asia and the setbacks suffered by the peace process. The leaders reaffirmed their support for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace based on United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (passed in 1967 and 1973 respectively) and the establishment of a sovereign Palestine state under the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). This point was added on the last day of the summit, reflecting the consensus on the issue among the leaders.
The Declaration also emphasised the need for international cooperation to combat terrorism. It reaffirmed that "the fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations has to be comprehensive and sustained". The Declaration went on to assert that "terrorism violates the fundamental values of the U.N. and the SAARC charter and constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security in the 21st century". Both New Delhi and Islamabad said their respective stands on the issue stood endorsed by the Declaration.
A meeting of the Foreign Secretaries held ahead of the summit recommended that the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 be implemented in toto in the region. The U.N. Security Council Resolution, unanimously passed on September 28 in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., had asked all states to end the financing of terrorism. It also called upon all countries to freeze the dealing in funds by terrorist groups without delay. The resolution emphasised that states should refrain from providing any form of support to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts and deny safe haven to those who finance, plan and support such acts. The final Declaration reflected the spirit of the U.N. resolution and pledged, among other things, to eliminate terrorism from South Asia.
The 56-point Declaration also gave due importance to topics such as poverty eradication and regional economic integration. Two important conventions were signed. The first related to trafficking in women. The second concerned the welfare of children. The summit also pledged to work for the early establishment of SAFTA. The Declaration called on member-states to expedite action to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers and structural impediments to free trade. The general feeling among the majority of SAARC nations, as reflected in the media and in private conversations among officials, was that as long as the India-Pakistan stand-off persists, there was little hope for the regional grouping to become a viable forum. In fact, demands have already been raised to expand SAARC to make it more meaningful. A leading Nepali economist said recently that China has every right to be in SAARC. China shares borders with four SAARC countries. There have also been suggestions that Myanmar be also considered for eventual membership of the grouping.
Pakistan will host the next SAARC summit. President Musharraf expressed the hope that he would be able to welcome all the South Asian leaders in Pakistan in early 2003.
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