SAARC MINISTERS CONFERENCE
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The council of foreign ministers during their present 2-day session in Islamabad has given a call for a shift in focus from words to action

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From Shamim Ahemd Rizvi,
 Islamabad

July 26 - Aug 01, 2004
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The 25th day session of the Council of Ministers of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) ended here in Islamabad with specific proposals for collaborative projects promising a better future for the people of the region. The chairman of the session, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri told newsmen after the concluding session "our deliberation were imbued with a new spirit of dynamism. Today an air of hope and optimism prevails through out the region as SAARC has started to exude new confidence with an improved international profile."

Mr. Kasuri highlighted the decisions taken by the Council attended by the foreign ministers of all the 7 member states, which included strengthening cooperation in the areas of telecommunication, information technology, economic integration, poverty alleviation, infrastructure development and approval of a plan of action recommended by the working group on energy and authorisation of a meeting of SAARC energy ministers to consider recommendation of the working group and establishment of SAARC forestry in Bhutan.

The council also decided to take immediate steps for the implementation of SAARC programmes with the assistance of international development institutions to expedite the process for seeking UN observer status for SAARC and to encourage collaboration with other regional organizations and the UN agencies. It resolved would look into modalities for establishing dialogue with other regional bodies and states outside the region taking into account the experience of other regional organizations. To promote people to people contacts, mutual understanding between the people of the region a regular parliamentary exchange was accepted and the Secretariat was directed to arrange such exchange visits of parliamentarians. Kasuri also disclosed that SAARC Secretariat has also been directed to complete the regional poverty profile 2004. The Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA) has been asked to expedite the preparation of South Asian goals for the next 5 years in the areas of poverty alleviation, education, health and environment. The UNDP has agreed to support this programme, he added.

The outgoing Secretary General of SAARC, M.A. Rahim of Bangladesh (replaced in this session with Mr. Lyonopo of Bhutan) told newsmen that he was fully satisfied with the progress made on South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and was confident that the remaining issues would be smoothly sorted out during the coming meeting of the experts committee. Hopefully the report will come up for decision before the next SAARC Summit to be held in Dhaka in January 2005. He said poverty in the region and regional cooperation for its alleviation has been the main focus of attention during the current ministerial conference.

 

 

On the sidelines of SAARC Foreign Ministers Conference, a number of meetings were held between the Indian delegation and their Pakistani counterparts to strengthen and expedite the peace process between the two countries without which SAARC cannot be activated. Foreign Minister Khurshid M. Kasuri and his Indian counterpart held a number of meetings to pave way for the composite dialogue to resolve all disputes between the two countries including the core issue of Kashmir. Both sides were, however, hesitant to disclose details of these meetings except that talks were progressing satisfactorily. The composite dialogue between the two countries will begin with meetings of the two foreign ministers in Delhi in the first week of August.

The eighteen years old SAARC which has so far remained hostage to hostilities between its two main members India and Pakistan was really activated last January in Islamabad which hosted the 12th SAARC summit. The two-day conference of top South Asian leaders was crowned with breaking ice between the two countries when the then Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee met President Musharraf pledging to work for peace and further to strengthen the momentum of improving ties between the two countries through cooperation and understanding to resolve all their outstanding issues. It gave a new hope and aspiration to SAARC. Besides opening new chapter in the sour Indo-Pak relations, the two countries agreed to initiate composite dialogue on all issues including Kashmir.

The 12th SAARC Summit attended by the heads of the seven member states India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives and Bhutan proved to be landmark event in the beautiful surroundings of Islamabad. It was a superb show by all standard and it did not merely contain thought provoking speeches by various prime ministers and head of governments, but also witnessed the signing ceremony on an agreed social charter that focus attention on the people of the region. It contained a number of articles that emphasize on poverty alleviation, health, education, human resource development, youth mobilization and improving the status of women. It called for promotion of rights and well being of the child, population stabilization, drug addiction, drug de-addiction rehabilitation and realization. It also approved the agreement prepared by the SAARC Ministerial Committee regarding free trade between the member countries (SAFTA) setting up a South Asian Bank for economic development and an additional protocol for combating terrorism.

The council of foreign ministers during their present two-day session in Islamabad has given a call for a shift in focus from words to action. It is highly encouraging as far too long SAARC has been nothing more than a debating club where much has been said but almost nothing has been done. At present South Asia has little to show in terms of collective efforts for human development despite being the most populous regions in the world. Spending on education and health are low and diseases and unemployment has risen during the years. SAARC provides an effective framework that can be used to enhance cooperation between member states in areas of common interest. The meeting in Islamabad has raised hope that SAARC will henceforth play an effective role in meeting the challenges facing the region.