By Shamim Ahmed Rizvi, Islamabad
May 22 - 28, 2000

3rd ECO Ministerial Conference on Transport and Communication

The 3rd Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) Ministerial Conference on transportand communication concluded in Islamabad last week. The 2nd ministerial conference which was inaugurated by the Chief Executive Gen Pervez Musharraf was preceded by 2-day meetings of the experts from the participating countries. A will follow up meeting of the civil aviation authority of the ECO be held in Karachi in November this year.

An important result of the meeting of this conference which was convened to review the status of the ECO cooperation in the fields of transportation and communication has been the operationalisation of the ECO transport frame-work agreement which commits member states to maximise economic cooperation through the development of an official transport and communication infrastructure between the member states. Pakistan occupies a pivotal position despite some handicaps because of internal turmoil and instable position in Afghanistan for any such infrastructure in the region.

A communique described as Islamabad declaration was issued at the end of the conference which was attended, besides the host Pakistan by Iran, Turkey Turkmenstan, Tajistan, Kazkhistan, Usbekistan, Kirgistan and Azerbaijan.

The 'Islamabad communique' stressed the need for an efficient transport and communication infrastructure to achieve the goal.

It also called for an early establishment of a common postal areas and an enhanced cooperation in the development of tele-communication equipment industry. It emphasized on putting into operation the Trans-Asia-Europe Fibre Optical Cable System (TAEFOS) in the ECO region.

The communique referred to the Chief Executive, Gen Pervez Musharraf's opening remarks that the delegates should work towards realizing the goals and aspirations for cooperation set forth in the Izmir Treaty, Quetta Plan of Action, Istanbul Declaration, Almaty outline plan and Ashgabat Declaration (1997) as well as the Economic Cooperation Strategy of the ECO. Briefing newsmen after the conclusion of the conference the Pakistan Minister for Communication, Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah said that it has been agreed to remove trade barriers among the member states and improve the inter trade value from present six per cent (Rs. 68 billion) to ten per cent by the year 2003. In the meanwhile the ECO members will take the required steps like removal of non-tariff barriers, reduction in custom duties etc.

Federal Minister said the meeting welcomed the invitation extended by Pakistan to convene the 1st meeting of the Civil Aviation Authority and heads of airlines of the ECO members in Karachi on November 17-19,2000. The members agreed to devise measures to pave the way for increased frequency and volume of air traffic in she ECO region, he added. Iftikhar said the meeting recognised the importance of establishing the Permanent Commission on transport and communications (PTCL) to accelerate the provision of adequate infrastructure in the ECO region.

The meeting also underlined the need to attain concrete results to demonstrate the commitment of the member states to realise the goals, the minister added.

The meeting expressed the hope that the task of preparing the Data Bank on the ECO road network as well as roads directory may be completed on priority, the minister said. While appreciating the printing of the first edition of the ECO roads and railways network maps and railways network maps, the meeting agreed that the new edition, would be ready at the earliest, the minister added.

Iftikhar said the meeting welcomed the initiation Of ECO, IDB, ESCAP, UNCTAD joint project on the introduction of multi-model transport operation in the ECO region and appreciated wholeheartedly the financial support of the IDB.

The minister said agreement has already been signed for uniform regulations in the member states but tariffs and custom issues would be finalised in due course. He said that ground was now set for play and progress could take place through different protects in different countries based on their respective national plans.

The Minister said Pakistan was ready to provide Tansit Trade facility to all the ECO member states to develop unprecedented bilateral economic cooperation. The participants of ECO ministerial meeting at Bhurban where he hosted a lunch in their honour. He said keeping in view the importance of trade traffic, Pakistan is also paying special attention towards highways system and modernization of ports.

On the occasion, Iranian Minister for Roads and Transport, Mehmood Hujatti said, "Iran is already cooperating for development of Transport and Communications in the region and will continue cooperation from the ECO platform in the days to come".

Head of Kyrghyz delegation, Erkinbek Kursanbaev said, "We desire early start of trade activity in the ECO region which will strengthen the economy of the whole region. Head of Kazakhstan delegation, Birzhan Kancshev hoped the ECO ministerial meeting would open new ways of cooperation in communications sector.

Karakorum Highway will play a significant role in establishing highways, communication contacts in the region, the representative of Tajikistan, Abdurakhim Ashurov said.

All this sounds great as far as it goes. But, like several other similar pledges and signed communiques, this one too will be consigned to oblivion unless the geo-politics of the region outgrows its confrontational mode and conflicts that mar progress by effectively blocking trade and pipeline routes are settled. The biggest problem is the instability in Afghanistan and its spillover effect in the neighbouring countries. The battle-weary country, most of which is controlled by the Taliban, was not invited to attend the Islamabad conference because no ECO states, save Pakistan, has extended recognition to the student militia's rule. No project envisaging a safe land-trade route or an uninterrupted pipeline can implemented on ground without peace and a stable government in Afghanistan. This is a classic case of politics overriding economic considerations.

That is where the ECO will have to work harder than on any other aspect of its organizational agenda. There may be a country or two that can benefit in the short-term from the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan. But it must be understood that, in the long run, nobody will be the winner if the region is held back by this seemingly intractable issue.