Trade and commerce is the “magic wand” for achieving the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC) goals of mutually beneficial cooperation, President Abdulla Yameen suggested this morning at the inauguration of the 35th session of the SAARC council of ministers.
In his speech at the council of foreign ministers hosted by the Maldives at Bandos Island Resort, President Yameen said that poverty, malnourishment, gender inequities, and access to safe drinking water and food were among some of the “collective challenges” faced by South Asian countries.
“If there is a magic wand to enable SAARC to achieve these goals, it is trade and commerce. Commerce unlocks the doors to each other’s countries, and cultivates closer ties of mutual understanding. Business transactions foster good neighbourly relations through the sharing of goods and values,” Yameen said.
“Trade and investment derive mutual benefits and improves the collective resilience of the region. Indeed, trade is the master key to turn poverty into prosperity.”
Yameen observed that the volume of trade within the region “remains at an abysmal low”.
“It is sad but true that SAARC member states often import from third countries goods produced in other SAARC countries. Barriers to entry and transaction costs are high,” he explained.
While the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) was drawn up as “a grand scheme” to enhance regional trade, Yameen argued that SAFTA has in many cases created “even more barriers”.
In the 27 months since the Maldives assumed chairmanship of SAARC, Yameen noted that progress has been made in “key areas of cooperation” such as trade, commerce and finance.
Despite being home to one-quarter of the world’s population, Yameen observed that the regional bloc held “limited power” in the international arena.
“We command limited attention and we demand limited engagement. Despite our share of the global population, we carry no collective voice,” he said.
South Asian countries should “stand up for each other, protect each other, and fight the cause for each other,” he said, calling on member states to “show the world the solidarity of SAARC”.
If a member state is “subjected to unfair treatment,” Yameen urged other South Asian countries to “stand up and demand justice.”
“It is time that the member states of SAARC forge common positions on critical issues of importance to our region and the rest of the world. Individually, we might only have limited impact or little strength, but collectively we can move mountains,” he said.
He added that the Maldives, despite being the smallest state in the association, had “a disproportionate stake in ensuring ensuring that regional cooperation succeeds in South Asia”.
On the need for reforms, recognised since 1997, Yameen noted that member states agreed during the summit held in Addu City in November 2011 to conduct “a comprehensive review of SAARC processes and institutions”.
The SAARC secretariat conducted a study to “streamline, rationalise, restructure, and strengthen SAARC mechanisms and processes,” which was being deliberated by foreign secretaries in order to implement its recommendations.
As the current meeting of foreign ministers was the last before Secretary General Ahmed Saleem – former chair of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives – hands over the rotating post to Nepal, Yameen expressed “deep appreciation for his major contribution to strengthen the association through his dedication and astuteness”.
Following consideration of the secretariat’s study, President Yameen said the Maldives would stress further cooperation in identified areas, using SAARC for building regional resilience, and “increasing the association’s international relevance”.
Concluding his address, President Yameen called on member states to “give meaning to the lofty goals set out in the charter” and “return to its original idea of promoting the quality of life of the peoples of South Asia”.
“Because, it certainly is the time for SAARC to help the peoples of our region in their march towards their manifest destiny,” he said.
Among the issues on the agenda for the council of foreign ministers today – the highest level meeting since November 2011 – were strengthening relations with observers, reviewing the secretariat’s study, and enhancing regional connectivity.
A decision on the inclusion of Turkey as a SAARC observer state is also up for discussion.
At its meeting during the November 2011 summit, the council agreed to conduct feasibility studies for an ‘Indian Ocean Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service’.
The 17th summit concluded with the signing of the ‘Addu Declaration,’ which contained key agreements affecting the region, including a commitment to establish the passenger and cargo ferry service.
Other agreements included the strengthening of the SAARC Secretariat, the establishment of a South Asian Postal Union, and intensification of efforts to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade and reduce the sensitive lists, which include items excluded from tariff concessions.