RCSS Roundtable on the Expanding Role of SAARC
Colombo, Sri Lanka
As a precursor to the SAARC Summit held in Colombo in July/ August 2008 the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) organized and hosted a Roundtable Discussion on the Expanding Role of SAARC in Promoting Peace and Development in the Region on 7th July, 2008, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The Roundtable Discussion was attended by Dr. Palitha Kohona, Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka, Mr. Mir Akram of the High Commission of Bangaldesh, Mr A. Manickam, Deputy High Commissioner for India, Ambassador Durga Prasad Bhattarai, of Nepal and High Commissioner Shahzad A. Chaudhry of Pakistan representing SAARC member countries. Mr. Ge Chuanyou, Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of China; Mr. Guy Platton, Charge d’Affaires of the Delegation of the European Commission, Ambassador Michel Lummaux of France, Ambassador Behnam Behrouz, of Iran, Ambassador Kyoshi Araki, of Japan; Ambassador Choi Ki Chul, of the Republic of Korea, High Commissioner Mookhesswur Choonee of Mauritius who flew in from New Delhi to attend the event, and Ambassador Robert O Blake of the USA represented the Observer states. Other officials from the Missions of SAARC countries and observer states were also present on the occasion. A panel of experts on regional cooperation drawn from think tanks, the academia and the private sector added the civil society component to the event. Dr. Rifaat Hussain, Executive Director of RCSS in his welcome address thanked all Heads of Mission of SAARC countries and Observer states and made reference to the SAARC Summit which was scheduled to be held in Colombo later that month highlighting that the key focus of the Roundtable Discussion was the expanding role of SAARC in promoting peace and development in the region. The Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dr. Palitha Kohona made the keynote address and a statement on behalf of Sri Lanka. In his keynote address he made reference to the fact that SAARC has been in existence for over two decades. Whereas in the formative years, safeguards with regard to certain issues were necessary but that it was now appropriate to take up all contentious issues and address common problems in the region. Dr. Kohona mentioned development, combating terrorism, poverty eradication, inter-regional trade, global warming and climate change and investments and services as important areas of  focus for the future. Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo, former Secretary General of SAARC made the opening remarks and together with Executive Director, Dr. Rifaat Hussain, facilitated the discussion which was held in two sessions – the first where representatives of SAARC countries made their country statements while representatives of Observer states made presentations expressing the views of their respective countries on the theme of the Roundtable in the second session. Both sessions were followed by discussions. Issues the region is confronted with, weaknesses of SAARC as a mechanism in addressing these issues and recommendations to improve the organization were highlighted in the presentations and discussions. The recommendations that emanated from the Roundtable Discussion were submitted to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Secretary General of SAARC in Kathmandu and representatives of SAARC Member countries and Observer States as well as the experts who participated in the Roundtable Discussion. Recommendations of the Roundtable: Observer States to SAARC – South Asia cannot function in isolation. Therefore, SAARC should be a part of the global community. Towards this end, the Observers should be considered as partners of SAARC and the partnership between SAARC members and Observer States should be strengthened. Making SAARC more People Friendly – The people in the region should be aware that the benefits of SAARC can be shared by everyone in the region. It is necessary for people to ‘embrace’ SAARC. SAARC should also operate at a people’s level, particularly at the bottom line of the society. Connectivity – SAARC should focus on connectivity as a means of enhancing regional integration. Closer connectivity builds up a People-to-people contact and is also needed to counter issues such as terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, small arms proliferation etc. A multi-modal transportation system, air connectivity, visa regulations, intra-regional tourism, development of ports, and exchanges of youth/scholars are some means of improving connectivity. The historic Silk Route can be revived and a railway transportation system set up along that route embracing not only South Asia but the larger Asia as well. The Necessity to have a Region-Building Initiative – The cooperation of SAARC countries should take place in a bilateral and multilateral context also with sub regional cooperation. SAARC should maintain a united position on all major issues and have an effective common voice in international fora. There should be continuous interaction with other regional organizations such as EU and ASEAN. Civil Society Networks – Regional integration cannot be achieved only through governmental participation. Civil Societies of member counties should be a part of regional integration. Efforts should be made to reach out to the civil society to supplement the role of the respective governments and private sectors. Problems of Implementation – Considering that SAARC is almost 25 years old it is imperative that it becomes more dynamic through hard work and effective implementation.  The decisions taken at a regional level should be fully implemented through the national agendas of Member Countries. Institutional Capacity – Make the SAARC Secretariat more effective in its role by including professionals in the institution. A SAARC audit mechanism can be used to monitor the progress of the organization. Experts outside the SAARC region should be approached for their advice, on short or long term basis. Regional Integration through Free Trade – The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) is a positive development leading to regional integration. However, it needs to be implemented fully with the participation of all member countries, at all levels, as substantial economic development can be achieved with deeper economic integration. Poverty Alleviation – South Asia needs to combat widespread hunger and poverty. Therefore, the alleviation of poverty and food security should be high on its agenda. The SAARC Development Fund should be publicized in order to receive contributions from Observers as well as other organizations or individuals. Development of Infrastructure/ Energy related issues – Infrastructure development is an area which needs urgent attention and basic infrastructure facilities should be improved for economic development. In view of the energy crisis, sharing of energy resources and multilateral cooperation is necessary. Environment – Climate change and environmental degradation are issues not only the South Asia region but the whole world is now faced with. Hence South Asia should work together with the global community to minimize the damages and help each other.