Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What’s in the 17th SAARC Summit declaration?

I forgot to upload this post before. It is a bit dated but is still relevant.

The seventeenth summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was held on 10-11 November, 2011 in Addu City, the Maldives. The head of the eight member states attended the summit, whose theme was "Building Bridges"-- both in terms of physical connectivity and figurative political dialogue.

Founded in 1985, the SAARC is an organization of eight South Asian nations, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

The summit saw signing of the SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, the SAARC Seed Bank Agreement, the SAARC Agreement on Multilateral Arrangement on Recognition of Conformity Assessment and the SAARC Agreement on Implementation of Regional Standards.

Moreover, it also decided to set the timeline for finalizing a framework for rail and sea connectivity. Specifically, the attending heads of state decided to finalize a Regional Railways Agreement and complete the preparatory work on an Indian Ocean Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service by the end of this year. The declaration also decided on early demonstration run of a Bangladesh-India-Nepal container train. Furthermore, the member states committed to conclude the inter-governmental framework agreement for energy cooperation and the study on regional power exchange concept.

Regarding economic integration and trade, the emphasis was on effective implementation of South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), pruning sensitive lists, eliminating non-tariff barriers (NTBs) and harmonizing standards and customs procedures. These barriers have been partly contributing to limiting intra-regional exports to five percent of total world exports by South Asian economies.

Still, the member countries are sitting on a lengthy list of sensitive products and imposing various forms of NTBs. A mere call for grater trade cooperation and reduction of number of products in sensitive lists will not suffice. There has to be concrete action and the leaders have to walk the talk to show that they are genuinely committed to greater economic integration and cooperation in South Asia.

As per trade liberalization program under SAFTA, the non Least Developed Countries (LDCs) would reduce their tariffs to 0-5 percent by 2013 and LDCs of SAARC would reduce their tariffs to 0-5 percent by 2016. That being said, cooperation is happening albeit at a gradual pace, which needs to be sped up in the coming days. On the eve of the summit, Pakistan announced most-favored-nation (MFN) treatment in trade and commerce to India. Additionally, Pakistan has committed to reduce its sensitive list by 20 percent and allow tariff concessions on further 233 items under South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in February 2012. During the summit, India reduced sensitive products’ list by 20 percent.

With respect to cooperation in combating the negative impacts of climate change, the summit was a disappointment. It just made a passing reference to this very important issue. The declaration states that the member countries are “conscious of the environmental degradation and particular vulnerabilities of the region to the threat of climate change” and hoped for timely implementation of the Thimphu Statement on Climate Change. Similar is the case with the commitment to alleviate poverty and reduce income inequalities within the societies: It reaffirmed the member’s resolve “to improve quality of life and well-being of people through people-centred sustainable development”, but made no specific actions, activities and commitments.

Regarding regional security, it mentions of their concerns about the continuing threat of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, transnational organized crimes, especially illegal trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, trafficking in persons and small arms and increased incidents of maritime piracy in the region; and reiterating their resolve to fight all such menaces.

The leaders also agreed to hold 18th SAARC Summit in Nepal.