Globalization · Regional Free Trade Area · SAARC · South Asia

Commitments of SAARC summits: An analysis

Commitments of SAARC summits: An analysis

Md. Joynal Abdin

The Daily Financial Express on May 20, 2010

The 16th SAARC Summit held on 28-29 April 2010 in Thimphu, Bhutan. South Asian people got another declaration on economic cooperation, poverty alleviation, environmental safety, cultural bonds, scientific excellence, fighting terrorism, security of small states, increasing standard of living, and unique regional stand in the international forums from SAARC leaders. These declarations are the most important documents of the willingness of our leaders for development of South Asia. We got 709 commitments from our leaders, Among these 86 commitments are directly or indirectly related to trade and development. Now, it’s time to evaluate them.

1st SAARC Summit was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 7-8 December 1985. The article 4 of the Dhaka declaration described that the achieving the goals of SAARC it needs to accelerate the process of economic and social development in member countries through the optimum utilisation of their human and material resources.

In second SAARC summit held in Bangalore, India on November 17, 1986 the article 4 was repeated and that it identified some fields of cooperation, exchange of ideas, experience and technology as well as goods and services, which utilise and enhance the productive capacity of each of the countries and build their collective self reliance in article 3 & 5. But a major shortfall of that declaration was that it did not identify implementing national body in each country.

The 3rd SAARC Summit held in Katmandu, Nepal on November 4, 1987 took the group a step forward by fixing modalities for studies to be carried out for cooperation in the areas of trade, manufacturing and services. Leaders of that summit emphasised on timely completion of the task.

Demand for closer connection among the SAARC people saw a breakthrough through VISA exemption system, stated in article – 15 of 4th SAARC Summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan on 31st December, 1988. Article 26 of 4th SAARC declaration made another stride by conceiving the idea of WTO trade regime in South Asia.

The 5th SAARC Summit held in Male, the Maldives on 21-23 November, 1990, did not discuss trade related issues although article 15 sought funding for regional project. However, article 21 called 2nd ministerial meeting for talks on economic cooperation.

In the 6th SAARC Summit held in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 21st December 1991 article 4 stated the need for dotting priorities of their respective national economies. The leaders felt, for the further development of their economies, the importance of securing less restrictive trading and marketing opportunities for their products, more extensive technology and resource transfers, debt relief and access on favorable and more concessional terms to resources from multilateral financial institutions. They agreed to keep an open dialogue on these aspects through mutual consultations. Though the decision took place earlier it has not been implemented until now. Other major outcomes of 6th SAARC summit were the establishment of the Committee for Economic Cooperation, and formulating SAARC Fund for Regional Projects (SFRP).

Article – 14 of 7th SAARC Summit held in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 11th April 1993, emphasized the need for liberalising trade as early as possible through a step by step approach. The leaders underscored that this should be done in such a manner that all countries in the region could share the benefits of trade expansion equitably. The framework Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) was finalised in the same summit.

The 8th SAARC Summit held in New Delhi, India on 2-4 May 1995. Article 13 & 14 of the declaration hoped that SAPTA would be in action within shortest possible time and it happened. Article 48 of the same summit gave us another hope by endorsing the establishment of three windows –South Asian Development Fund with the merger of SAARC Fund for Regional Projects and the SAARC Regional Fund and social development and infrastructure development. But till now we are in dark about performance of these windows.

Article 17 of the 9th SAARC Summit held in Malé, Maldives on 12-14 May 1997 agreed that the efforts to enhance trade and economic co-operation in the region would be further strengthened by initiating specific steps to promote and protect investment, increase complementarities in economic activities of member states and other measures supportive of promotion of SAARC joint ventures. After 13 years we still do not see any active step to implement this article.

Article 19 of the same summit states: “The governments noted that inadequate communications facilities amongst the member states were a major hindrance to closer economic co-operation. They stressed the importance of developing infrastructure and adequate communication networks among member states to reinforce the process of economic co-operation. In this regard, they highlighted the need for the simplification of complex documentation procedures and transactional software to facilitate economic interaction across the region”. But, until now, Bangladesh does not have direct shipping line with many SAARC countries. Transit & transshipment issues are till being debated. So, problems have been identified, but we are not taking active steps to solve them, It means we are not willing to activate SAARC as a successful regional grouping.

In 11th SAARC Summit declaration held in Katmandu, Nepal on 4 to 6 January 2002 article -7 gave new directions “recognizing the need to move quickly towards a South Asian Free Trade Area, the heads of state or government directed the council of ministers to finalize the text of the Draft Treaty Framework by the end of 2002. They also directed that in moving towards the goal of SAFTA, the member states expedite action to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers and structural impediments to free trade. They were also instructed to conclude the meeting of the inter-governmental group on trade liberalisation for the Fourth Round of Trade Negotiations under SAPTA as early as possible as per the decision of the Tenth SAARC Summit in Colombo”.

The 12th SAARC Summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan on 4-6 January 2004 declared another millstone in its article – 3 “We reiterate our commitment made at the 11th SAARC Summit at Katmandu in January 2002 for the creation of a South Asian Economic Union. In this context, we underline that creation of a suitable political and economic environment would be conducive to the realization of this objective”. But after 6 years of the promises there is no sign of making the Economic Union a success. To implement this article each member country should establish an independent commission to deal with the SAARC integration issues and coordinate among the ministries to facilitate the process. Otherwise a SAARC Secretariat can transform into SAARC parliament to make the integration happen.

Some more important issues were discussed in the 12th SAARC summit these are regional energy sharing, transportation, transit and connectivity, public private sector cooperation, joint venture project in SAARC region, harmonization of standards, simplification of custom procedures, as well as cooperation among the central banks, united effort for promoting tourism in South Asia. But none of the issues are resolved though these are the prerequisites for regional economic cooperation leading to integration.

13th SAARC Summit was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 12 – 13 November 2005. The Article -15 of this declaration said: “They reiterated the need to strengthen transportation and communication links across the region for accelerated and balanced economic growth. They directed further measures aimed at trade liberalization, as provided for in the SAFTA Agreement. They noted with satisfaction the ongoing SAARC Regional Multimodal Transport Study to enhance transport connectivity among the Member States. The Heads of State or Government agreed to undertake trade facilitation measures, including transit among SAARC countries, on the basis of understanding among concerned countries, for enhancing intra-regional trade and other economic activities. They noted the Indian proposal in this regard. They agreed to study the proposal by India for daily air service facility by designated airlines, on a reciprocal basis and without prejudice to existing rights, to all the SAARC Member States and also the proposal to extend fifth freedom rights to designated airlines from the Member States, both intermediate and beyond, within the SAARC region on a reciprocal basis” should be implemented as soon as possible to achieve projected outcome from SAARC.

Connectivity, energy crisis, and need for implementing SAFTA accordingly, trade facilitation; regional hydroelectric grid, gas pipeline etc were discussed in 14th & 15th SAARC summits. But there was no mention of implementing agency, monitoring body, intra country coordinating committee. As a result all these good ideas may not be materialised or suffer long delay.

However, the article -5 of latest 16th SAARC summit held in Thimphu, Bhutan on 28-29 April 2010 stated: “The Leaders agreed that the scope and substance of cooperation had expanded to diverse fields, providing a firm basis for genuine partnership. However, a number of these had not translated into meaningful and tangible benefits to the people. They, therefore, highlighted the need for more efficient, focused, time-bound and people-centric activities and called for appropriate reflection of all the SAARC decisions into the national policies and programmes of member states. They resolved that the Silver Jubilee Year should be commemorated by making SAARC a truly action-oriented by fulfilling commitments, implementing declarations and decisions and operationalizing instruments and living up to the hopes and aspirations of one fifth of humanity”. Now is the time to implement all the SAARC declarations effectively with a time bound limit as stated in the above article.

We have to strengthen SAARC for quicker integration of the region, because integrated South Asia may be more resourceful than any other region in the world including the European Union. 

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