SAARC is yet to attain its huge potential although it is the largest regional cooperation body in the world and has completed twenty years of its existence. It is home to about one-fifth of humanity. SAARC has adopted many declarations in the past but there was little progress on its implementation. It is said that mental reservation is stronger in these countries than real impediment. The region is endowed with immense geographical advantages, plenty of natural and human resources and a large and vibrant market of middle class consumers capable of purchasing even luxury items. But this region could not achieve economic integration because of both bilateral and regional problems. The Dhaka Summit provided a fresh impetus for regional cooperation with specific focus on implementation.
There is tension in almost all the countries of SAARC. Terrorist activities and bomb blasts have created a kind of instability in these countries. One country is blaming the other for terrorist attacks. But the terrorists do not have the same objectives in these countries. A regional strategy may be worked out to disengage terrorists. Majority of the poor of the world live in the SAARC countries, but their growth and economic development have not trickled down to the poor. Corruption is pervasive in some of these countries.
After two postponements, the 13th SAARC Summit was held in Dhaka. There was unprecedented security all around. The Summit went off smoothly. The capital city of Dhaka wore a magnificent look for welcoming the visiting dignitaries. The Summit made Dhaka clean and pleasant. The security steps were necessary to ensure total safety of our guests.
Many observers felt that representation in the SAARC meeting was not very effective. Prime Minister Monmohan Singh attended the meeting but Sonia Gandhi was the real person behind the scene. Sri Lankan President came but she would be in power only for few more days. President Parvez Musharraf is the powerful man in Pakistan but the country's prime minister attended the meeting. Nepal's king was in uncertain position. Bhutan's king did not come although real power is vested in him. There could be change of government in Maldives during the December election. National election will also be held in Bangladesh before the next summit. Against this backdrop, it was perhaps not possible to take bold decisions.
Civil society leaders urged the leadership of South Asian region to make SAARC effective and come up with a positive mindset. The organisation has done little to change the fate of the people. Slow progress was the failure of leadership. The region has to be turned into a hub of prosperity from a hovel of poverty. The predominance of politics over economics was the key challenge of this body. It was felt that discussion would not bring any substantive result, if India backtracked on forging cooperation.
Media men toyed with the idea of establishing a SAARC parliament. They have been holding meetings to promote the idea. Some quarters feel that the concept is premature and unlikely to take shape in the near future. The idea is being coined largely on the line of European Parliament although Europe and Asia are not similar. A high profile conference of the parliamentarians of South Asia in Pakistan sometime back addressed the matter in great detail. But at this stage this is certainly not a priority. There is so much to do to revitalise SAARC.
South Asian leaders at the conclusion of two-day summit on 13/11/05 adopted a 53-point Dhaka Declaration. They reached a number of new agreements on improving regional cooperation. They vowed to face the common challenges in order to realise the aspirations of the 1.5 billion of the region. But too many items were included in the declaration, which could divert attention from the key concerns. The heads of state/government emphasised that efforts must continue to free South Asia from poverty, hunger and other forms of deprivation and social injustice. But there is no time frame for achieving these objectives. This is a kind of best endeavour clause.
All the leaders demonstrated a sense of urgency for the implementation of projects and programmes. There was a need for strengthening of institutional capabilities. There was candid acknowledgement of failure of SAARC to deliver. The Dhaka Declaration promised speedy resolution of the unsettled issues.
The SAARC leaders encouraged member states to undertake projects as per provisions of the charter with donor assistance. Previously there was no provision for donor financing of SAARC projects. The new provision will be able to attract donors for financing of projects within the framework of SAARC. The issue of poverty alleviation featured prominently in the speeches of the leaders. The Summit, in accordance with a Bangladesh proposal, declared the period between 2006 and 2015 as the SAARC Decade of Poverty Alleviation. Funding agencies have to be convinced of committing more resources for poverty reduction projects in a big way.
Finalisation of the SAFTA agreement is of crucial importance. This will be a concrete step for enhancing cooperation among the member states. Negotiation should be conducted in such a way that it produces a meaningful package. Success of SAFTA will encourage member states for further deepening of cooperation. As indicated in the declaration, SAFTA may be expanded to include trade in services, enhanced investment and harmonised standards.
The heads of state/government agreed to undertake trade facilitation measures, including transit among SAARC countries. They noted the Indian proposal in this regard. In his address to the summit, the Indian Prime minister proposed reciprocal transit facility to each other and also to third countries. So long India has been asking for transit facility from Bangladesh without offering anything in return. Prime Minister's proposal is quite realistic and negotiation may now begin to determine the nature of reciprocity. It may be mentioned that Bangladesh could not make full use of Teen Bigha Corridor even after 30 years of the agreement.
The declaration emphasised the need for parallel initiatives for dismantling of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers. Bangladesh suffered most from such barriers with respect to her trade with India. Bangladesh products cannot move to India for these barriers. India should take unilateral move in this regard without waiting for conclusion of agreements on mutual recognition of standards, testing and measurements, which may take time.
The resolution on terrorism was a positive development. The leaders strongly condemned terrorist violence, which was a challenge to all states. In view of the continuing and recent terrorist attacks in the region and their impact on security, economic stability and social development, they expressed their determination to unite in preventing and combating terrorism.
The leaders underscored that the development dimension should continue to be at the heart of the on-going negotiation of the Doha Development Round. Legitimate concerns of the developing countries have to be adequately reflected in the outcome of the current round of trade negotiations. Member countries have to work together on common issues during the Hong Kong ministerial conference for mutual benefit.
It was a constructive decision to accept Afghanistan as a member and agree to provide observer status for China and Japan subject to completion of formalities. Agreement on membership of Afghanistan is believed to have been done at the instance of the US. Japan and China have welcomed the decision to award them observer status. There may be blending of Chinese technology and Japanese capital in promoting development in these countries.
Realisation of the vision of South Asian Economic Union has to be pursued in a phased manner. Implementation of SAARC projects has to be given priority to help create an enabling environment for the establishment of the Economic Union. Three agreements were signed for boosting trade and investment. These agreements relate to avoidance of double taxation, customs cooperation and arbitration council to settle disputes.
Although Monmohan Singh's remark on failed states in India's neighbourhood was not palatable to his SAARC colleagues, his attitude in Dhaka was quite positive.
Countries of this region are beset with territorial disputes, cross-border terrorism, border problems, disputed land and maritime boundaries, ethnic tension, communal riots and security issues. They have to work together to resolve these issues for enhancing cooperation. Dhaka summit will provide a fillip to SAARC initiative.
The writer is former economic minister of Bangladesh mission to UN in Geneva