Saturday, November 12, 2011

17th SAARC Summit

Founded in 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an organization of eight South Asian nations, namely: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The bilateral meetings tend to overshadow SAARC, much to the annoyance of the region’s smaller countries like the Maldives, the summit is largely India’s show. The Ministry of External Affairs’ spin doctors would like to project SAARC as a success beyond expectations. Some may even have the gumption of comparing it with ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) grouping and the European Union (EU), claiming that what SAARC has achieved in its 26th year of its existence has been done at a faster pace in many sectors than what the other two economic biggies have been able to achieve.
The truth is that SAARC has so far been moderate in its accomplishments. But significantly it is now finally ready to take off and become a major economic grouping. Or, to put it even more dramatically, SAARC is an idea whose time has finally arrived. That is indicated by the fact that there are now nine countries that have been given ‘Observer” status at the current summit in Maldives outnumbering the number of member countries. These are the United States, Australia, China, the EU, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, and Myanmar. That is a good sign as many of these countries had written off SAARC regarding it as a lost cause.
The fact is that India’s neighborhood is in a better shape than it has been for many years. Nepal appears back on track, restive Bangladesh has got its economy going, Sri Lanka has finally ended years of civil war and Pakistan, despite internal strife, wants to bring its economy back in shape. In all the eight SAARC countries, democracy has emerged though in Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan it may still be nascent.
Heads of states and delegates to the 17th SAARC met at the two-day summit in Addu City (the Maldives) on 10-11 November.
Focal Theme
The focal theme of the Maldives Summit was: "Building Bridges – both in terms of physical connectivity and figurative political dialogue." This eloquently summarizes the imperative of greater regional integration, and is an objective to which India is fully committed. One such initiative taken in 2010 was the launch of the South Asia Forum that has brought together eminent South Asians from different walks of life about the future cooperation in South Asia.
Chairman of 17th SAARC Summit was Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed.
Joint Declaration
At the end of the summit, leaders adopted Addu Declaration, which reaffirms their commitment to peace, confidence building, liberty, human dignity, democracy, mutual respect, good governance and human rights. The declaration reviews their commitment to alleviate poverty and reduce income inequalities within the societies and reaffirms their resolve to improve quality of life and well-being of their people through people-centered sustainable development.
In the declaration, SAARC member states show their concerns about the continuing threat of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, transnational organized crimes, especially illegal trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, trafficking in persons and small arms and increased incidents of maritime piracy in the region; and reiterating their resolve to fight all such menaces.
The declaration states that the countries are aware the environmental degradation and particular vulnerabilities of the region to the threat of climate change and recognize the need to further strengthen the institutional mechanisms of SAARC to bolster and enhance regional cooperation.
Foreign ministers from SAARC member countries have signed the agreements on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, Multilateral Arrangement on Recognition of Confirmity Assessment, Implementation of Regional Standards and Seed Bank.
The Maldives Summit agreed to conclude the Regional Railways Agreement and convene the Expert Group Meeting on Motor Vehicles Agreement before the next Council of Ministers.
Highlights of Addu Declaration
Intensify efforts to fully and effectively implement the South Asian Free Trade Areas (SAFTA) agreement and work on reduction in Sensitive Lists as well as early resolution of non-tariff barriers and expediting the process of harmonizing standards and customs procedures.
* Direct SAARC Finance Ministers to chart a proposal that would allow for greater flow of financial capital and intra-regional long-term investment.
* Conclude the Regional Railways Agreement and convene the Expert Group Meeting on the Motor Vehicles Agreement before the next Session.
* Ensure completion of the preparatory work on the Indian Ocean Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service, including the Feasibility Study, by the end of 2011.
* Direct the conclusion of the Inter-governmental Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation and the Study on the Regional Power Exchange Concept as also the work related to SAARC Market for Electricity.
Security and Other Issues
The leaders of the Maldives Summit agreed to establish a South Asian Postal Union.
On security issues, Nasheed said the SAARC leaders have reached an agreement on the Rapid Response to Natural Disasters and agreed to initiate work on combating maritime piracy in the region.
SAARC countries have agreed that they will spend an appropriate proportion of their national income on renewable energy technologies, subject to approval of national arrangements. They have agreed to convene an expert group meeting to discuss a regional mechanism to empowerment of women and promote gender equality in the region.
The SAARC leaders decided to promote communication between SAARC countries. SAARC secretary general has been instructed to ensure the final preparations for the Indian Ocean Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service are completed this year.
They agreed to direct the finance ministers to chart a proposal to allow more financial flows and investments.
India’s Point
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged to promote fair trade in the region. He spoke positively of the progress made in SAARC terming it as "impressive" and pointed out that many sectors including trade, transport, health and education have benefited from it.
He said: "Our summit is taking place at a time when the West is having an economic crisis. In the meantime developing countries like ours will be squeezed for capital and markets and we should look for innovative solutions within South Asian region."
The 18th SAARC Summit will be held in Nepal.

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