Colombo SAARC Summit: An Overview
All Heads of State and Government of the eight SAARC nations are
expected to arrive in Sri Lanka to take part in the 15th SAARC Summit
scheduled there for August 2 to 3. According to the available
information, Nepal Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala will be the
first to arrive in the island, followed by Bhutan Prime Minister Jigme
Thinley, Bangladesh Chief Advisor Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed and Maldives
President Dr. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom will be in the country on August 1,
while Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani
will participate in the Summit representing India and Pakistan
Representing SAARC’s youngest member Afghanistan, President Hamid
Karzai will take part in the Summit, marking his country›s first
participation at the regional event. Besides, this year›s Summit will be
observed by seven States, namely, China, the European Union (EU), Iran,
Mauritius, Japan, Korea and the United States.
The representatives of the Observer States who will take part in the
main summit are Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Dawei, EU
Director-Asia James Moran, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Monoucher
Mottachi, Mauritius Minister of Agro Industries and Fisheries Dr. Arvin
Bolell, Korean Vice foreign Minister Kwon Jong Rak and Assistant
Secretary to the US Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Richard A.
Primarily focused on economic integration and integrated development
in the region, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)
was established on December 8, 1985 by eight countries in Southern Asia,
namely India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives Bhutan,
and Afghanistan (2007) and, like ASEAN, D-8, and G8, etc., it is an
economic and political organisation forging ties with several
international and regional forums.
In the late 1970s, Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman proposed the
creation of a trade bloc consisting of South Asian countries. SAARC was
established to promote peace, stability, amity and progress in the
region through strict adherence to the principles of the UN Charter and
Non-Alignment, particularly respect for the principles of sovereign
equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force
and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and
peaceful settlement of all disputes.
The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was again mooted in
May 1980. The Foreign Secretaries of the seven countries met for the
first time in Colombo in April 1981. The Committee of the Whole, which
met in Colombo in August 1981, identified five broad areas for regional
cooperation. New areas of cooperation were added in the following years.
SAARC was founded by the regional leaders conscious that in an
increasingly interdependent world, the objectives of peace, freedom,
social justice and economic prosperity are best achieved in the South
Asian region by fostering mutual understanding, good neighbourly
relations and meaningful cooperation among the Member States which are
bound by ties of history and culture.
They are aware of the common problems, interests and aspirations of
the peoples of SOUTH ASIA and the need for joint action and enhanced
cooperation within their respective political and economic systems and
cultural traditions. The SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu
on 16 January 1987 and was inaugurated by His Majesty King Birendra Bir
Bikram Shah Dev of Nepal.
Comprising the Foreign Ministers of Member States, the Council of
Ministers is responsible for formulating policies, reviewing progress,
deciding on new areas of cooperation, establishing additional mechanisms
as deemed necessary, and deciding on other matters of general interest
to the Association.
The Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation was adopted by
the Foreign Ministers in 1983 in New Delhi. During the meeting, the
Ministers also launched the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) in nine
agreed areas, namely, Agriculture, Rural Development,
Telecommunications, Meteorology, Health and Population Activities,
Transport, Postal Services, Science and Technology, and Sports, Arts and
On August 2, 2006 the foreign ministers of the SAARC countries agreed
in principle to grant observer status to the US, South Korea and the
European Union. On 4 March 2007, Iran requested observer status.
The Council meets normally twice a year and may also meet in
extraordinary sessions by agreement of Member States.
The Objectives of the Association as defined in the Charter are:
* to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve
their quality of life;
* to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural
development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity
to live in dignity and to realise their full potential;
* to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries
of South Asia;
* to contribute to mutual trust, understand and appreciation of one
* to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic,
social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
*to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
* to strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on
matters of common interest; and
*to cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar
aims and purposes.
Like the G8 and WTO, the SAARC is supposed to take collective
corrective measures for economic development of the region. The key
function of the SAARC is economic cooperation and collective decisions.
The Committee of Economic Cooperation consists of Secretaries of
Commerce of member states and it promotes regional cooperation in the
The Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) was
signed in Dhaka during the 7th SAARC Summit, in 1993. It aims to promote
and sustain mutual trade and the economic cooperation among the South
Asian States, through exchanging concessions.
Later, with the broad objective of moving towards a South Asian
Economic Union (SAEU), the SAARC Member States signed the Agreement on
SAARC Free Trade Area (SAFTA) on 6 January 2004 at the 12th SAARC Summit
held in Islamabad and came into force on 1 January 2006. SAFTA has six
core elements covering trade liberalisation programme, rules of origin,
institutional arrangements, safeguard measures, special and differential
treatment for least developed countries (LDCs), and dispute settlement
Sri Lanka would be assuming the Chairmanship of the most populated
and one of the most endowed regional blocs in the world. The SAARC
Summit in Colombo would certainly enhance the profile and the stature of
Sri Lanka not only regionally but internationally, as stated earlier.
The Chairmanship of the 15th SAARC Summit would reflect, with
conviction and cogency, Sri Lanka›s pro-active engagement and
involvement with many a nations, and of course the largest regional bloc
in the world.
Taking the mantle of the Chair of the world›s largest regional
grouping, in terms of population, Sri Lanka could be the focal point of
all SAARC and SAARC related discussions and parleys.
If addressed with a high degree of diligence, assiduousness and
astuteness, the SAARC, similar to other well established regional
groupings in the world, could articulate in unison with other groupings
or international bodies. The political benefit of such an accomplishment
would be monumental, particularly for Sri Lanka since it holds the Chair
of the SAARC.
The theme of Colombo SAARC Summit, the 15th SAARC Summit since its
formation in 1985, is “SAARC Partnership for People”. The theme of the
last year SAARC Summit held in New Delhi was “Connectivity”.
The Southern leaders would deliberate on the issue of food security
and power and energy. This theme has a close correlation and has a sense
of continuity to the previous theme of connectivity. The SAARC Summit in
Colombo would enhance the profile and the stature of the country not
only regionally but internationally as well.
Both these issues are most conspicuous to this developing region
since the scarcity of power/energy and food could have a negative impact
not only on the economies but on the populace as well.
Key energy issues such as sharing of hydro power and the tri-lateral
gas pipeline among Iran-Pakistan-India too would be addressed at the
Colombo Summit. Addressing these issues at the Colombo Summit would
definitely be of benefit to Sri Lanka. Special focus would be on the
price rise and oil crisis.
India insists on debating upon issues like “terrorism” and keeping in
view of the latest “terror attacks” in India (at a time India was losing
cricket in Sri Lanka), the SAARC would discuss the issue, including
Further, the assumption of the Chairmanship of this regional bloc,
i.e., SAARC, would reflect the proactive engagement of Sri Lanka in
geopolitical and geo-economics issues in the region, which in turn would
transcend to Asia in particular and the rest of the world in general.
The Chair of the SAARC would be indisputably one of the highest offices
Sri Lanka has held over the years in international forums.
The SAARC member States are represented at Heads of State/Government
level and would be accompanied by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs as
well as several other key Ministers. International Summits of this
nature and profile attending Heads of State/Government and senior
Ministers would further strengthen political relations as well as
economic and cultural relations. Over 250-300 foreign media personnel
would be present at the Colombo Summit to extend coverage to the Summit
as well as numerous meetings between the leaders among others.
Sri Lanka places an increasing importance on establishing and
reinforcing connectivity and closer and pro-active partnership between
and among the member states as well as with other countries. It is
anticipated that the Colombo Summit would focus on increasing
connectivity not only air connectivity but by land and by sea as well.
The utility of greater connectivity would be economically significant
and would benefit Sri Lanka.
The Connectivity and Partnership would lead to closer cooperation
among the member States in many spheres such as trade, services, food
security, tourism, oil and natural gas, and investments as well as FDI/FII
It is equally important for the member States and particularly for
the Chair of the SAARC, which is to be Sri Lanka, to continue to
establish and promote greater connectivity in all aspects. The theme of
this year›s Summit, which is SAARC Partnership for People, would make a
strong impingement on further development of the region.
It is increasingly vital for the member States and particularly the
imminent Chair of the SAARC, i.e., Sri Lanka, to play a pivotal and
instrumental role, thus executing and fructifying the theme of
Connectivity and the Colombo Summit theme of Partnership for People.
The region of SAARC has one of the highest number of people under the
poverty line and the current development of the region is far from
satisfactory. The concept of connectivity, as stated earlier, has a
number of economic as well as political and social benefits to the
SAARC is one of the weakest regional cooperation forums in the world
as the actions for disconnectivity take an upper-hand over even the
normal process of collective organisation.
As a result, the intra- regional trade of the SAARC is still at a
dismal figure of approximately 5.5% of the total trade of the member
countries. Strong and well established degree of connectivity and
partnership between and among people and member countries could increase
the share of intra-regional trade markedly.
As stated, the connectivity could lead to a great degree of economic
and commercial activity such as enhancement of tourism, intra-regional
investment and trade, international joint ventures and people to people
contact among others. It is envisaged that the Colombo SAARC Summit
would map out and deliberate other sources of alternative energy.
Further, the Colombo Summit would focus on enhancing air connectivity
between and among the member countries. The Summit will address the
operational aspects and other concomitant dynamics of the SAFTA as well.
The SAFTA could be the catalyst to transform and evolve the region of
SAARC as a free trade area, thus increasing the bilateral and
multilateral trade of goods.
It may also be stated that hosting a Summit with such a pantheon of
South Asian leaders and other global dignitaries would reflect the
stability, capacity and finesse of the country, thus stimulating
economic and commercial activity.
The Summit would also address the issue of establishing uniform
standards of goods and services among the member countries. The
standardisation would increase trade and reduce the cost of production
as well as increase the competitiveness vis- a -vis other countries.
It may be germane to state that the Summit would ponder over other
methodologies to implement tele-medicine, visa free entry among the
member States and facilitation of religious pilgrims among others.
Needless to state that these economic initiatives and propositions would
have a direct impact on the economic fabric of the country.
It is no doubt that the Colombo SAARC Summit would lead to physical
economic and commercial benefits to all member countries. The
establishment of the SAARC University in New Delhi should benefit all
the member countries in enhancing the human resource development and
marketable skills and knowledge.
The students entering the proposed SAARC University would be
primarily from the member countries. The establishment of the SAARC
Development Fund (SDF) which consists of US$ 300 million would be used
for development purposes in all aspects.
For any given country, particularly the member countries of SAARC,
the human resource base would be of paramount significance and
importance for the development and advancement of the respective
countries. One could foresee that a development fund of this magnitude
and scale would benefit most of the countries with regard to,
particularly, the construction and advancement of their infrastructure.
It is estimated that the total cost of the SAARC Summit in Colombo
would be in the vicinity of SLR 2.8 billion or US$ 27 million, compared
to the importance of security at the recently held G-8 Summit in Japan,
known as Hokkaido Summit, the cost of security at which alone was an
exorbitant figure of US$ 280 million.
The newest member of the SAARC, which is Afghanistan, would offer
increasing opportunity in the realm of construction and re-development.
It may be noted that seven Observer States too would be engaged in
bilateral discussions and would also focus on economic, trade and
investment aspects as well. Given this context, one could comprehend the
fact that these seven Observer States are not only affluent and
economically and politically endowed but also belong to many regional
and economic groupings.
Bilateral Agreements among the member-states also would be clinched
in the Summit or on the sidelines of it. For instance, it is slated that
India and Sri Lanka would sign key agreements such as Science and
Technology, National Thermal Power Corporation of India (NTPC) and CEB
of Sri Lanka, and Power Grid Transmission Agreement.
Shared power, energy, food and other natural and human resources can
make wonders for the South Asian region gifted with plenty of them. But
mutual suspicion and hatred have harmed the process of any purposeful
cooperation among the SAARC members. That is unfortunate.
SAARC leaders for over two decades keep meeting achieving nothing
tangible. At the beginning of the new millennium, hopes were kindled
that SAARC countries would follow the lead provided by their neighbours
of South East Asia and move fast to fill the void that was created by
the colonialists and would help them come together through forging unity
in matters related primarily to economic progress.
Four years have passed since the signing of South Asia Free Trade
Agreement (SAFTA) at the Islamabad SAARC Summit and various issues are
still under discussion. But very slow forward movement was witnessed
towards South Asia emerging as an economic union.
There are several issues that need concrete decisions and immediate
follow-up action by the SAARC leaders. Of these, the first priority
needed to provide uninterrupted, direct, and cheap communication links
between the SAARC nations, either without the requirement of visa or
liberal visa regime. Some SAARC countries already have this facility for
their citizens that needs to be extended to all others.
The restricted travel and goods transport facilities by cheaper modes
like railways and road transport should be open to the citizens of all
SAARC countries having their countries› travel documents.It is strange
that one cannot travel between Peshawar and Dacca while the same was
possible about a century ago.
SAARC has so far kept internal and bilateral issues outside its scope
while its members and even the Summit leaders do make a mention in their
Sensitive internal issues with political implementations should
continue to be dealt with separately while there are many an issue that
were of immediate concern for the economic development of the region and
US-Afghan and Sri Lankan officials also must have talked about the
activities of Taliban and Tamil Tigers as they consider them to be
What makes our governments reluctant about opening up the travel
facilities that would generate billions worth tourism between these
countries who have so much to see and enjoy in each other’s country? And
why should someone not drive in less than 48 hours from Kathmandu to
Lahore and enjoy an overnight stay in some Indian city in the UP. Isn’t
it absurd that such a travel has turned into a dream in the post 1965
decades despite the establishment of SAARC?
When some of the SAARC nations were facing staple grain shortage
while some have surplus available. SAARC should save them of the
exorbitant rates being charged by multinational corporations (MNCs) who
have earned huge profits at the cost of developing countries whose
markets they were pressing through the WTO to be opened for the imperial
loot. Instead of opening the markets for MNCs, it would be in the
interest of regional cooperation to open the same for countries in the
Regional cooperation among SAARC nations could do wonders with the
development of electric power generation and the provision of alternate
energy sources. It was not hydel and coal alone that could generate the
required megawatts (MW) of electricity but there could be combined
efforts to develop wind and solar energy. SAARC leaders need to
demonstrate political will and restrain themselves from subverting
mutual cooperation where it was beneficial for all.
Of course, there do exist genuine suspicions and fears on several
issues. One would not expect an overnight change in the mindset of the
decision-makers and even other sections of public who have lived their
lives hating the neighbours more than others. This hate game is not only
between adherents of different faiths but also amongst them.
The feelings were easily discernable, say between India and Pakistan;
India and Bangladesh and India and Nepal and even amongst Pakistan and
Afghanistan. There was no denying the fact that . But instead of nursing
them while living with the same and looking ahead in future would be
Need of the hour is a collective effort by all the countries of the
region for relieving millions and millions of their citizens from
poverty and deprivation that it accompanied. Among the member-states
India seems to the strongest and richest and it has to shoulder prime
responsibility in keeping the SAARC well-knit and economically strong
Issues like economic integration, combating terrorism and
anti-Islamism should find their due place in the Summit. The region›s
development and prosperity of its around one and a half billion people
remains hostage to myopic forces of the status quo with the result that
almost half of their population lives below the poverty line and points
to a colossal waste of human resources.
SAARC should consider influencing India to consider surrendering
sovereignty back to the struggling and dying Kashmirs. Kashmir should,
in due course, join the SAARC as a bonafide member of SAARC to play a
constructive role in the SAARC activities.
It should be realized that there is no possibility of poverty
alleviation or sustainable development or real people’s welfare in SAARC
community, unless collective efforts are consciously made for mutual
trust and constructive cooperation among the SAARC members.