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A Perspective

- Prasad Gunewardene


Colombo SAARC Summit: A forum of faith

Sri Lanka stood dragged towards a terrorist conflict. India appeared sliding again to experience terror. Pakistan and Afghanistan engaged in combat in their respective nations, to halt constant terrorist explosions.


President Mahinda Rajapaksa with Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at the SAARC Summit

Nepal struggling for political supremacy after two decades of violence.

Bangladesh experiencing power politics alongside terror. The silence of peace disturbed in Bhutan and Maldives due to increasing internal problems...... Craters caused by terrorist explosions almost everywhere in every nation in South Asia....In the sum up; the South Asian Region is plagued by the constant crack of mortar shells, the gruesome beat of sophisticated automatic gun fire and the deafening sounds of deadly explosions.

A terrorist war, with no mercy, rages in the region blowing an ill wind into member States.....

Important component

It was in that backdrop, the eight leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) gathered at the Main Auditorium of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) last Saturday morning as the important component of the political leadership in the region, to discuss and confront issues before them. In that exercise, they joined hands to discharge the responsibilities mandated by the SAARC Charter for the millions in the region.

By all standards, the teething problem days of SAARC is over, as the Association is now in the youth at 23 looking more confident than before. The necessity was the urgent need for accumulated wisdom with respect towards all member States. That was witnessed to satisfaction at the 15th SAARC Summit last Saturday among all leaders.

This Columnist in his previous two columns stressed the need for all SAARC leaders to give priority to the need to combat and eliminate terrorism which was a growing menace to the region, threatening democracy and stability of all member States. And, if permitted to declare the year 2009 as the 'Year to fight Terrorism'.

It was heartening to note that all leaders placed the subject of Terrorism on top of the agenda and were unanimous in their resolve to combat the menace of terrorism in the region.

Collective action

The first call to redouble efforts for 'collective action' came from the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent Chairman of SAARC who took over from his predecessor, Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

President Rajapaksa pointed out that no country in the SAARC region was spared by terrorism and reiterated the fact that terrorism could be routed citing his Government's success in the Eastern theatre of Sri Lanka where democracy has been re-established by the people after three decades of terrorism.

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, whose country was badly hit by a terrorist attack in Gujrat, the birth place of the Father of Non-Violence, Mahatma Gandhi, almost on the eve of his departure to Colombo told the distinguished audience at the BMICH that India lamented that terrorism continued to rear its' ugly head in the region and it was the biggest threat to the stability and progress.

Expressing his words of wisdom, Dr. Singh said "We cannot lose the battle against ideologies of hatred, fanaticism and against all those who seek to destroy our social fabric".

He was of the view that extremists and terrorists knew no borders. The Indian Prime Minister called upon all SAARC leaders to defend the values of pluralism, peaceful coexistence and the rule of law.

Leaders from other member States too spoke in the same tone stressing the need to eliminate terrorism in the region.

Unlike previous Summits, the Colombo Summit looked even more significant, with all realising the danger posed by terrorism to speak in one voice to eliminate the menace.

As in the past, the SAARC should not waste time on 'definitions' to 'term' or define the 'difference' between criminality and terrorism. Terrorism is much more serious than criminal acts witnessed in society.

Hence, trying to marry the two or an attempt to compare them as equal is a waste of time and energy.

More practical

Terrorism is guerrilla warfare which claims lives in hundreds or thousands at times, when we recall the gruesome September 11 Al Qaeda attack on the United States. In the correct descriptive perception, terrorism stands divorced from criminal acts witnessed in any normal society.

This position is substantiated by Dr. Manmohan Singh's statement that- "Extremists and Terrorists knew no borders"- and that of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who claimed - "Terrorists knew no Race, Language or Religion".

The Colombo Summit looked more practical in nature as unanimity prevailed among all leaders to the urgent challenge facing the region.

To follow up basic human needs such as health, education, food, clothing, trade, commerce etc; there ought to be peace in the region to achieve results in those areas.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon the leadership of SAARC and member States to make use of existing provisions mandated under the SAARC Charter to face the challenge of terrorism, the cause and obstacle to stability, peace and progress as stated by all leaders at the Fifteenth Summit in Colombo.

There has been an inordinate delay in the action process of SAARC over the years. With terrorism threatening to bury democracy in the region, the incumbent leaders of SAARC cannot afford to waste time, adopting a slow process as witnessed in the past.

Fifteen years ago at the Dhaka Summit, all leaders reiterated the need to give high priority to the enactment of enabling legislation at national level to give effect to the SAARC Convention of the Suppression of Terrorism and urged all member States to make every effort to finalize the matter before the eighth SAARC Summit.

We've now come from the eighth to the fifteenth, but the Convention is yet confined to the cupboard at the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu.

Growing menace

The SAARC had been talking about the growing menace of terrorism in the region from the first Summit. With that being the truth, there was also a growing need to transform the South Asian Region into a Region of Peace.

Much time had been wasted on talks at 14 Summits. Though belated, its' time now to move into action with the Colombo Summit being more practical and unanimous on agreement to battle terrorism.

The Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism signed in Kathmandu, November 4, 1987 by all Foreign Ministers of the member States designed 'Extradition' methods among member States. The Foreign Ministers were requested to finalise the matter in keeping with their respective domestic laws on extradition.

Two decades have passed, an 'Extradition Treaty' which is an essential component to the region, with a former Indian Prime Minister assassinated by another terror outfit of a neighbouring country is yet to materialise even though successive Foreign Ministers have met in groups over that period of time.

As former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi was killed by the LTTE, the incumbent President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa is on record saying he had no objection to hand over LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran, if India wanted to try him in the assassination case.

The message of the growing menace of terrorism was carried to the world from the Colombo Summit on Saturday with six foreign 'Observer Groups' in attendance. Among them was the United States, a victim of Al Qaeda terrorism.

Richard Boucher, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in an interview stated that Washington fully recognised the terrorist threat faced by Sri Lanka and urged to fight terror with respect democracy. Boucher is no stranger to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka is not a strange place to Boucher.

Respect human rights

He had made several visits to Colombo in the past. Boucher had stressed that the people in this country need to enjoy the respect of their human rights and enjoy the benefits of the Government.

Who deprives the people of reaping the benefits of the Government? Isn't it the LTTE which violates human rights in a dastardly manner? When development and progress is stifled by terrorism, how could the people reap benefits from what is on offer by the State?

Proved beyond doubt

Richard Boucher further claims that upon military gains, the people should benefit from the democratic Government. In that direction, the present Government has proved itself beyond any doubt with the liberation of the East and democracy restored for the people to reap benefits from the State administration over there.

A Government is elected by the people, for the people. And, such a Government cannot deny the basic needs of the people. Therefore, the question or the position of Boucher does not arise in the context of this country.

Boucher himself, in that interview admits that the LTTE is not actively promoting a peace agreement at present. As an Observer, Boucher heard the sentiments expressed by all SAARC leaders with regard to the menace of terrorism.

It is the wish of the South Asian people that Richard Boucher would carry the message to Washington correctly. Then Washington may not only recognise the terrorist threat in Sri Lanka but would openly support to crush terrorism here and in the region.

The West must be made aware that South Asia is not trying to be bright or inventive but, is engaged as an Association to strengthen democracy through participatory governance.

The SAARC was formed as a critical vehicle to unite, gain accumulated wisdom to uphold humanity and fight all forms of criminality and terrorism that affects the region. Boucher would have witnessed the unique manner all SAARC leaders sans arrogance demonstrated their will to safeguard the region from the menace of terrorism.

The determination of the 15th Summit in Colombo was to ensure success, despite the complexity of the terrorist challenge before them. The Summit proved that SAARC member States were capable of crossing parochial boundaries to agree and face the common threat of terrorism before them.

The SAARC leaders used the forum as a platform to confront the threat of

terrorism, setting aside divergent interests that revolve around other areas of need in the region.

They were aware that the continuing menace of terrorism broadened the disparities in the distribution of opportunities, income and wealth to millions in the region.

All nations in this region experience deep divisions in ethnic and other conflicts. SAARC is aware of these facts which have given rise to terrorism under the guise of 'liberators' or 'freedom fighters'.

Incentive

In reality, these so called liberators and freedom fighters annihilate people of their own ethnicity who oppose them.

Extremism begins at that stage. Later it develops into terrorism with no respect or regard for race, religion or language as described by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The South Asian region has witnessed much of such barbarism and brutality of terrorism.

The Colombo Summit is an incentive to forge ahead on the 15th SAARC Declaration. The Declaration is born out of the recognition that the SAARC Secretariat, Foreign Ministers and other important Representatives should follow up issues to take speedy action. In the past, the approach has been lethargic and the process had been a 'miserable slow walk', as issues roasted beyond consumption on the burner.

Now, with 'Observers' from around the globe having witnessed the success of the 15th Summit in Colombo, that paved the way for a new chapter in the SAARC Charter, all member States should be awake to take on the challenge to crush terrorism in the region.

SAARC cannot go to sleep or feel slumber with the view that they have met as usual. It should closely examine ways and means; adopt strategies and tactics to face the challenge of terrorism.

There is also the need to enhance the capacity of member States to expand cooperation with collective interest, in dealing with issues in the region. Because, none at that historic BMICH platform and the audience needed education on critical issues faced by member States in the region.

The need is a concerted effort in a sustained manner to address issues with mutual trust and understanding. The outstanding issues in the region occupy a strategic place in the agenda of SAARC.

Millions in the region expect SAARC to meet all challenges with confidence to generate vigor and strength for a better future for them.

Let us not forget that the West would keep a close tab on the progress of SAARC with the 'Mighty Boy', Richard Boucher being present here as an 'Observer', as the 15th SAARC Summit looked exclusive in all its' forms and deliberations, that demonstrated the dignity, dedication and determination of the eight nation SAARC, now headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa ready to face any challenge.

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