I rise to make a statement on the 19th SAARC Summit that was to be held in Islamabad on the 9th and 10th of November 2016, and matters in connection with regional cooperation in South Asia.
As this House is aware, Sri Lanka is a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, commonly known as SAARC. Sri Lanka was in fact among the earliest countries in the region to support the concept of regional cooperation when it was first discussed. Therefore, when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was conceptualized, we were naturally among the original signatories to the Charter of SAARC on 8th December 1985.
Successive Governments in Sri Lanka, throughout SAARC’s history of over three decades, since 1985, have remained faithful to regional cooperation through SAARC. I recall the words of President J.R. Jayewardene at the first Summit in Dhaka on 7th December 1985 where he said,
“We approach our task with hope and with optimism, for we believe that as the full potential of our venture comes to be realized, its benefits will be incalculable to the welfare of our several peoples and countries.”
Manifesting our firm commitment to regional cooperation, Sri Lanka assumed the responsibility of chairing SAARC and providing leadership to the Organisation on three occasions. Sri Lanka was host to SAARC Summits in 1991, 1998 and in 2008. We have always been active participants in SAARC, contributing to the realization of objectives envisioned in the Charter, “…to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region”.
We can, I believe, be modestly proud that Sri Lanka has taken all the steps that could possibly be taken to work with countries in the region, since SAARC’s inception, to explore ways and means of making SAARC improve the lives of people and making SAARC relevant to people so that they realize the value of working together, of cooperating with each other, and they see regional cooperation as an essential means to ensure the betterment of their lives.
From promoting greater economic liberalization and cooperation to improved physical connectivity and trade; enhancing people-to-people contact, cultural cooperation, facilitating deeper understanding of each other’s traditions, practices, literature, cultures; and promoting the ‘SAARC brand’; technical cooperation in all areas including governance, security, agriculture, and a host of other fields, Sri Lanka has supported and promoted every conceivable aspect of ‘working together’ in the region.
Sri Lanka also promoted the concept of exploring possibilities of working together to address global issues such as energy security, food security and climate change that impact on the development strategies of all the countries in our region. We supported SAARC, as the ideal platform for our leaders to meet and discuss and take common positions on issues that affect us collectively as a region and seek practical and pragmatic solutions.
Sri Lanka’s united vision, irrespective of political party affiliations within our country, I believe, is for an inclusive, plural and rapidly developing region that benefits all the people of South Asia; a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation that is an efficient and effective mechanism that makes a positive impact on the people of the region, translating the vision of the Charter of the Organisation into reality; a South Asia of peace, friendship and prosperity, where its borders will see the free flow of people, goods and ideas without fear – a region of prosperity.
Addressing the 1st SAARC Summit in 1985, President J.R. Jayewardene also said this: “The greater we understand each other, easier becomes the realization of our goals. There can be no successful regional cooperation without mutual confidence, without mutual trust.”
It cannot be denied, Hon. Speaker, that peace and security isa primary requirement for the fulfillment of our vision of prosperity and meaningful cooperation in the region. It cannot also be denied that regional cooperation can never reach its optimum potential as long as intractable bilateral issues prevail.
Terrorism is an issue that must unite our region, not divide our region. It is a menace that has taken a heavy toll on the economic and social fabric of almost all our countries. Terrorism poses an existential threat to the civilized world, and it must be defeated. Sri Lanka has always been firm in denouncing terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, irrespective of where it occurs, and Sri Lanka supports decisive action in dealing with terrorism.
In the region, we have in place instruments such as the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism, the 2004 Additional Protocol on Terrorism, and the SAARC Ministerial Declaration of 28 February 2009 on Cooperation in Combating Terrorism. Translation of such instruments and declarations into implementation is essential.
It is time that our region united in its resolve to eliminate this scourge. All the leaders of South Asia must unite and take a firm standand decisive action to eliminate terrorism which stands as an obstacle to the achievement of the goals that we envision for our region. The people of this region of South Asia deserve better living standards, better infrastructure, better education, peace, prosperity, security, and friendship; and we must not fail them.
There were concerns being expressed by some regarding the statement issued by the Government in relation to the postponement of the 19th SAARC Summit which was to be held in Islamabad on the 9th and 10th of November. At no point, Hon. Speaker, did the Government pull out of the 19th SAARC Summit.
As the Members of this House are aware, the General Provisions of the Charter of SAARC prescribes that “decisions at all levels shall be taken on the basis of unanimity”. Therefore, the moment one country says that they are unable to attend a SAARC Summit, a Summit cannot be held. There was, therefore, no question of Sri Lanka pulling out of SAARC, or Sri Lanka saying that we will not attend the Summit as there was no Summit to attend. Sri Lanka issued a statement after several countries had informed the current Chair of SAARC, Nepal, formally, that they are unable to attend the Summit, and after the Chair, that is Nepal, issued a Statement as well.
In our statement, we expressed regret that the prevailing environment in the region, with several countries having stated their inability to attend the Summit, is not conducive for holding the Summit on the 9th and 10th of November, and we expressed hope that the steps required to ensuring our region’s peace and security will be taken to create an environment that is conducive for the pursuit of regional cooperation.
As a country that is committed to regional cooperation, and as a country that clearly perceives the benefits of regional cooperation for the people of Sri Lanka and the wider South Asian region, we stand ready to participate in the 19th SAARC Summit whenever it is being held.
It is my solemn hope, Hon. Speaker, that this would be the moment that all the leaders in our region resolve to forget past failures, break with the past, and unite in good faith and in sincerity to work together for the greater good and greater benefit of the people of our region.