A low-key summit

Published : Aug 15, 1998 00:00 IST

Leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meet in Colombo in the backdrop of rising tensions in the subcontinent and the economic meltdown in the neighbouring region.

THE 10th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was held in Colombo between July 29 and 31. Sri Lanka was given the privilege of hosting the summit since this year marked the 50th anniversary of its Independence. The Sri Lankan Government went out of its way to ensure that the summit went off smoothly. Colombo was virtually sealed off for three days, and a national holiday was declared on the inaugural day of the summit.

The summit was held against the backdrop of rising tensions in the subcontinent and the economic meltdown in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. Predictably, even before the summit began there was a scaling down of expectations, and the hopes raised at the Male summit last year had all but evaporated. It was made clear at the conclusion of the ministerial meetings that preceded the summit that the much-heralded deadline for the establishment of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was no longer feasible. SAFTA was supposed to have been in place by the year 2001.

Even before the summit began, Pakistan began to lobby for the inclusion of the "peace and security" issue on the agenda. Although this demand did not find any takers, there was a realisation, widely reflected in the Sri Lankan media, that for the SAARC to be a meaningful organisation and not just "a talking shop", nuclear and bilateral issues should figure in the formal talks.

In an effort to pre-empt any hiccups during the proceedings, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who addressed mediapersons before the summit, said that the summit would focus primarily on the challenges and problems faced by South Asia in the context of globalisation. He said that the summit would, within this broad context, look at ways and means to secure a more equitable distribution of the benefits of globalisation and respond to issues of debt, intellectual property, market access and conditionalities imposed by others. He also expressed satisfaction over the fact that SAARC member-states had articulated a common position at a meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva in May.

Alluding to the nuclear issue and Kashmir, Kadirgamar said that SAARC nations were not in favour of getting bogged down in conflicts that are "perceived, rather than real". He said that the summit would fundamentally and primarily be an economic one. Strongly defending the SAARC Charter, which prohibits discussions at the forums on bilateral issues, Kadirgamar said that he would prefer to continue with the tradition of informal dialogue on contentious political issues. According to him, political discussions had the potential to become divisive. "We must," he said, "concentrate on the matters on hand, matters that deal with the welfare of the people."

Even within ASEAN, which SAARC looks upon as a model, there have been calls for formal discussions on bilateral issues that crop up between member-countries. The unravelling of authoritarian governments in South-East Asia could lead ASEAN to becoming a forum that concerns itself also with the political realities that confronts its members. For instance, it will be difficult for ASEAN to sweep under the carpet the territorial disputes between its member-states. The economic crisis in the region has brought to the fore other potentially explosive issues as well, such as the expulsion of thousands of Indonesians from Malaysia.

AS expected, the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in May cast a shadow over the summit, despite Kadirgamar's efforts to downplay the issue. Before the SAARC leaders met formally at the summit, the South Asia Forum for Human Rights sent a "People's memorandum" highlighting its "dismay and alarm" over the nuclear tests. The memorandum, which stated that there could be no justification for the tests, was signed by prominent intellectuals and academicians from SAARC countries. The signatories urged India and Pakistan to sign immediately a bilateral treaty of peace enshrining the principles of non-aggression - declaring 'no first use' of nuclear weapons and abjuring the use of force to settle bilateral differences. They called on the South Asian states to engage in a constructive dialogue with all the known nuclear weapon states in order to create a non-discriminatory, transparent treaty for global nuclear disarmament and destruction of all nuclear weapons.

IN a speech she gave after taking over as the Chairperson of SAARC, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga told the delegates that although the issue of nuclear tests was not on the summit's official agenda, it could not be ignored. She reminded the delegates that the 1995 New Delhi SAARC summit had given a call to give utmost priority to the issue of nuclear disarmament. At the same time, she said, South Asia's nuclear concerns could not be divorced from the global security environment.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was more forthright. She described the nuclear tests as a development that could have been avoided. In her address, she said: "Nothing should be allowed to detract from our main focus and emphasis, namely combating widespread problems of poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease in our region."

Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom pointed out that the SAARC had in all its previous summits called for nuclear disarmament. "Recent developments in South Asia have brought new concerns to the fore," he said. "In a global village, we all have a stake in the peace dividend." He added that the need for vigilance had now become greater.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had come to Colombo to wrest the diplomatic initiative from New Delhi. He tried to shift the focus to the nuclear issue. He said that the summit was being held in "the sombre backdrop of a dangerous security environment" in the region and that "the shockwaves from the test have heightened fears about peace and stability in South Asia." He said that it was an "inescapable reality" that South Asia had become nuclearised. While speaking to the media, Sharif claimed that many SAARC leaders privately endorsed his views. Indirectly blaming India for the deteriorating security situation in the subcontinent, he said that left to itself, Pakistan would never have embarked on what he described as a "perilous course".

Nawaz Sharif said that SAARC was facing its greatest challenge since its inception and added that the time had come for it to redefine its role and priorities. According to Sharif, the primary reason for the failure of SAARC to live up to expectation was that it failed to discuss political problems. He said that peace was inseparable from progress and development and without peace, beneficial regional cooperation would have only limited success. In this context, he proposed a Peace, Security and Development Initiative for South Asia. According to Sharif, this Initiative should focus on bilateral issues and problems between member-states and promote economic progress in the regional context.

However, Sharif's Peace, Development and Security Initiative was not endorsed by other leaders, who chose to swear by the SAARC charter which excludes discussions on contentious bilateral issues. The Sri Lankan President diplomatically conveyed to Sharif that his proposal had not been submitted in time for it to be included in the official agenda. She, however, expressed the hope that it would receive the formal attention of the 1999 summit, scheduled to be held in Kathmandu.

In his speech, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that SAARC's agenda must continue to focus on strengthening the framework of regional economic cooperation. He said that it was the duty of the member-countries to ensure collectively that the momentum towards trade liberalisation was maintained and the negotiations for the South Asian Preferential Trade Arrangement (SAPTA) were concluded quickly. India, he said, was willing to take concrete steps to speed up trade liberalistation in the region. Amidst applause, he announced that India was removing restrictions on over 2,000 products to help other SAARC countries gain access to Indian markets and increase their exports. He also announced that Indian negotiators had been given a mandate to offer significant tariff reductions during the SAPTA negotiations.

Touching upon the nuclear issue, Vajpayee said that the ''apprehensions'' about the recent developments in South Asia were misplaced and that the developments would not cause a setback to SAARC. He said that India was strongly committed to global nuclear disarmament, and added that India's security, as well as that of the rest of the world, would be best ensured in a nuclear weapons-free environment.

THE Colombo Declaration issued at the end of the summit pledged to work towards raising the living standards of the 1.3 billion inhabitants of the region. The SAARC leaders agreed to combat the trafficking in women and children, to draft a convention for the promotion of child welfare and to develop a social charter that will focus on poverty eradication, population stabilisation and human resource development. The leaders called for eradicating illiteracy in the region through cooperative endeavours within the SAARC framework. The Colombo Declaration condemned the exploitation of children by terrorist groups. The Indian viewpoint appeared to have prevailed on the issue of peace and stability. The leaders were of the view that stability, peace and security in South Asia could not be considered in isolation from the global security environment. They said that though the danger of a global nulcear conflagration had abated, states continued to maintain huge arsenals of nuclear weapons.

The much-heralded report of the Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) was released on the last day of the summit. The GEP's mandate was to prepare a report on the progress made by SAARC since its inception. The report stated that cooperation had been hindered by a lack of political will and that the Association was still very far from its goal of maturing into a regional economic grouping.

Expressing concern over the nuclear tests, the report stated that the consequent escalation of tension in the region could impede the progress of regional cooperation. The GEP report also observed that areas such as energy, manufacturing services, banking and finance were still outside the SAARC umbrella. The report pointed out that in many cases, even decisions taken at the highest political level continued to remain unimplemented.

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