بســم اللّـه الرّحمـن الرّحيــم
اَلحَمْـدُ لِلّـهِ رَبّ العَـالَمِـين، وَالصّـلاة وَالسّلام علـى سيدنا محـمَّدٍ، خاتم الأنبياء والمرسلين، وَعلـى آلـه وَصَحْبِـهِ أجمـعـين.
Honourable Ministers and Foreign Secretaries, Secretary-General of SAARC, His Excellency Ahmed Saleem, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
السّــلام عليــكم ورحـمــة اللّـه وبـركاتـه
At the outset, let me extend a very warm welcome to the visiting Foreign Ministers, External Affairs Ministers, and distinguished delegates to the Maldives. I wish you success in your deliberations, and hope you have an enjoyable stay in the “sunny side of life”!
In 1985, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and six other leaders of South Asia sat down in Dhaka to jot down their vision for the region. They dreamed a South Asia that thrives on peace, stability, harmony and progress. They sought to foster a community of nations, where mutual understanding and good neighbourly relations prospered. They cherished the common bonds of history and culture that we share. And above all, their vision was founded on the notion that regional cooperation is mutually beneficial, desirable, and indeed, necessary.
Almost 30 years since on, how far have we come in the realisation of this vision?
SAARC has managed to hold countless meetings. It has expanded into many fields. It has, also, contributed to building confidence and trust among the top leadership of our countries.
These achievements must not and certainly does not, however, mask our continued collective challenges.
While South Asia’s growth rate has averaged six percent annually over the past 20 years, over half a billion of our people still live below the poverty line.
While this region is blessed with abundant natural resources, 235 million people remain without access to safe drinking water and adequate food.
While South Asia may have been led by a record number of female Heads of State or Governments throughout its contemporary history, profound gender inequities persist across the SAARC region.
While this region also boasts one of the youngest and most dynamic generations, South Asia has the largest number of malnourished children in the world.
All these reasons led critics to often ask the question: what has SAARC done for the region? Sceptics claim that SAARC has become obsolete and redundant; that it has reached its use-by date.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, the South Asians, have a common history and a shared culture.
Whether we recognise it or not, we share same challenges together as a region.
Whether we like it or not, our common problems require solutions of a collective nature.
And whether we believe it or not, we have a common destiny.
Regional cooperation has not outlived its purpose. SAARC is even more relevant and necessary.
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. 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.
While trade’s potential for economic growth has been underscored by the leaders of this region for many years, 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. In order to enhance trade within our region, our leaders drew up a grand scheme that established the South Asian Free Trade Agreement. However, the very own vehicle we created to lower barriers has, in many cases, resulted in creating even more barriers. It is therefore, time to unlock the huge potential that trade has to offer. The Maldives, while being the smallest economy in the region, has reduced its negative list from about 800 to 100 items. We urge you to adopt trade in order for regional cooperation to yield fruits.
Twenty-seven months have passed since the Maldives assumed the Chair of SAARC. This has been a challenging time for SAARC and for the Maldives as well. Despite that, we were able to steer our Association and make good progress in key areas of cooperation. What is most satisfying is the emphasis given to the areas of trade, commerce and finance during these past years. It is gratifying to note that more attention has been given in consolidating the gains we have made in economic cooperation. As the Chair of SAARC, the Maldives would continue with its efforts in keeping economic cooperation as the centre of focus of SAARC.
Our region is home to one-quarter of the world’s population. Yet, the reality is that in the global arena, we, as a regional bloc hold limited power. We command limited attention and we demand limited engagement. Despite our share of the global population, we carry no collective voice.
It is time that we, as a region, stand up to demand our worth in the international arena. It is time that we stand up for each other, protect each other, and fight the cause for each other. It is time that we show the world the solidarity of SAARC.
When a Member State is subjected to unfair treatment, its neighbours need 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.
The Maldives is the smallest state in South Asia. And yet, we believe that we have a disproportionate stake in ensuring that regional cooperation succeeds in South Asia.
The Maldives believes that SAARC requires reforming. In fact, reform has constantly featured on SAARC’s agenda ever since President Gayoom’s call for reform during the Male’ Summit of 1997. Most recently, the Seventeenth Summit decided to initiate a comprehensive review of SAARC processes and institutions.
Over the years, SAARC processes and mechanisms have become complex. Therefore, in the absence of any other regional mechanism, SAARC had to widen its areas of cooperation to match the expectations of the peoples in the region. As a result, increasing activities and the strain on resources have become obvious concerns. Faced with these realities, the SAARC Secretariat was entrusted to conduct a Study, the first of its kind, intended to streamline, rationalize, restructure and strengthen SAARC mechanisms and processes. I understand that the Foreign Secretaries had been deliberating on the Study to make the recommendation of the Study implementable.
I wish to congratulate the SAARC Secretary-General and the Secretariat staff for carrying out this enormous undertaking. Since this is the last meeting before Secretary-General Ahmed Saleem relinquishes his duties, I wish to particularly record my deep appreciation for his major contribution to strengthen the Association through his dedication and astuteness.
The Maldives considered the Secretariat’s Comprehensive Study with much interest. The Maldives would continue to put emphasis in deepening cooperation in the identified areas of focus, making SAARC as an instrument for building regional resilience, and increasing the Association’s international relevance.
Is it not time that the Member States of SAARC give meaning to the lofty goals set out in the Charter? Is it not overdue for SAARC to return to its original idea of promoting the quality of life of the peoples of South Asia? Should we not focus towards building our national and collective self-reliance? Let us, the Member States, do whatever is possible, with whatever we have, to achieve these goals. Because, it certainly is the time for SAARC to help the peoples of our region in their march towards their manifest destiny.
Thank you Ministers, and thank you delegates.