President Karzai of Afghanistan; Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh; Prime Minister Thinley of Bhutan; Prime Minister Singh of India; Prime Minister Battarai of Nepal; Prime Minister Gillani of Pakistan; President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka; Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentleman,

Welcome to the Maldives. Welcome to Addu City and the first SAARC conference south of the equator.

In the Maldives, we pride ourselves on welcoming people to our country. I hope that everything is to your satisfaction and that everyone here enjoys their time in the Maldives.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe that the 21st Century will be Asia’s century. I believe that Asia, and South Asia in particular, is becoming more powerful and more prominent than any other time in our history. In short, I believe the future is ours to shape.

Our economies are booming. Our political influence is growing. And our ability to shape the course of world affairs has never been stronger. Our populations are youthful and energetic. Our thinkers, researchers and scientists are globally renowned. Our culture is internationally acclaimed. Our private sector companies are some of the world’s largest and most profitable.

For too long, South Asia was considered a sideshow in the theatre of global politics. But today, we occupy centre stage. The eyes of the world are upon us. This is our time to shine.

The SAARC region is a region of great wealth. From the Indus plains, to the Ganges delta, from the Himalayan mountain tops, to the islands of the Indian Ocean, if we can harness our abundant resources, we can ensure our people have a decent life.

Fundamentally, our people want the same key things. They want to live in societies based on the rule of law, in which basic freedoms are protected. They want the chance to succeed in our region’s economic miracle. They want what everyone wants: a decent life to live in dignity.

I believe, over the next few decades, we can grow our economies and eradicate poverty. I believe we can strengthen and deepen our democracies. I believe we can ensure our region is stable and secure. We can make sure each and every worker earns the decent wage to which they are entitled. We can ensure that babies are born free from transmittable diseases such as Polio. We can make certain that our children grow up free from hunger and want.

But we can only achieve these goals, if we work together. Because our success, is dependent on our neighbour’s success. Economic stagnation in one part of our region dampens prosperity in another. Instability in one member state causes insecurity for us all. We can only make progress if we integrate our economies, ensure our financial system is stable, and foster a political climate that creates confidence.

Since our last meeting in Thimphu, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Afghanistan’s government remains strong. South Asia is an increasingly wealthy region and we must contribute to the stability in Afghanistan.

Last year, in Thimphu, I spoke about the need for India and Pakistan to compartmentalise their differences and find areas on which they can move forward. 18 months later and India and Pakistan have held many positive discussions.

In February, India and Pakistan agreed to restart peace talks on all issues. In May, Indian parliamentarians visited Islamabad to advance the cause of peace. In July, Foreign Minister Rabbani Khar visited New Delhi. A month later, MPs from both countries met in India to continue deliberations. In September, Pakistani and Indian railway officials met to help boost connectivity and trade. And in the past few days, Pakistan improved trade links by deciding to grant India the status of Most Favoured Nation. Today, the Pakistani and Indian Prime Ministers met in the lovely setting of the Shangri La in the Maldives.

These developments are extremely welcome. I hope all political parties in India and Pakistan applaud these encouraging moves. I hope this summit will be enthused with optimism. And I hope both countries can work to resolve their core issues.

The theme of this summit is building bridges. I hope one of the things we can achieve, at this and future summits is greater integration and co-operation between SAARC countries.

In this regard, I am delighted that at this summit, SAARC countries will finalise the agreement on the Rapid Response to Natural Disasters. And we welcome the establishment of the South Asian Postal Union, which will benefit all our citizens.

But much more work needs to be done to bridge the divides that currently separate our countries, our economies and our people. There are three key areas of co-operation, where we should aim to achieve greater links:

Firstly, trade, transport and economic integration. Secondly, co-operation on security issues such as piracy and climate change. Thirdly, good governance.

Let me address each of these three areas, one by one.

Firstly, on trade, transport and economic integration, I hope we can progress measures to make trade, transport and investments easier between South Asian countries. At this summit, I look forward to progressing the regional ferry service, which will better connect our region, and boost investment, and trade. I am very glad that work on the ferry service is nearing completion, and I hope we can agree to see services start by the end of this year.

To further connect and integrate our region, I would also like to see progress on the Railways Agreement and the Motor Vehicle Agreement, which will make travel between SAARC nations much easier than it is today. I hope that by the next meeting of the Council of Ministers, held in the Maldives in July, we will sign both of these agreements.

At last year’s summit, leaders signed the SAARC Agreement in Trade in Services. Leaders also underscored their commitment to the full implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement. These are important steps in driving deeper economic and commercial integration in our region. It is important that at this summit, we build on that momentum. In order to realise the full implementation of SAFTA, we should mandate our finance ministers to discuss a mechanism to promote capital flows and investments. And we would like to see progress reducing, and ultimately scrapping, the SAFTA sensitive list.

Allow me to address the second proposed area of co-operation, maritime security and climate change. Piracy in the Indian Ocean is a growing threat to our security and stability. And so, at this summit, I hope we can consider a regional arrangement to improve maritime security and combat the threat of piracy.

Climate change remains this region’s greatest long-term security threat. Already, climate change is causing havoc, threatening our development and prosperity. But the solution to climate change is not cutting back. Rather, it is investing in the new, clean technologies that not only reduce pollution, but also improve energy security and provide long term economic growth.

I hope other SAARC nations can rise to the challenges climate change poses, and agree to invest a significant amount of their national incomes in clean technologies. By embracing climate change as an opportunity to do things differently, we can tackle emissions and earn a competitive edge in the rapidly growing, clean economy.

The third area in which we hope to see more co-operation, is good governance and democracy. South Asia’s great, underlying strength is that we are a region of democracies. As our societies mature, so our systems of good governance must deepen. I look forward to building on the success of the SAARC Charter of Democracy at this summit. The charter aims to provide us with a vehicle through which we can work together to strengthen our democracies, through strong national institutions, a clear separation of powers, an independent and competent judiciary, a free press and vibrant civil society.

I welcome the proposal to set up a SAARC Independent Commission on Gender. South Asian women suffer from a wide range of disadvantages and discrimination. Women in our region have some of the world’s lowest rates of property ownership and political representation. It is our hope that a Commission on Gender can highlight these issues and work with governments to develope innovative strategies to resolve gender inequality.

To complement the important work SAARC has already achieved in promoting good governance, I hope we can also consider a regional mechanism for the promotion of good governance and human rights. I say this, not because any of us are interested in finger-pointing and criticizing one another. Nor do we want to re-open painful historical wounds.

But we do have a duty, as leaders, to improve the lives of our citizens. As we move forward to build a successful, strong and integrated region of democracies, I believe regional mechanisms would support and strengthen human rights governance. We are not moving for a decision at this stage. Rather, an open dialogue on this issue, and Maldives would be happy to host such a discussion.

We also need to make changes to the way SAARC itself is governed. The SAARC Secretary-General, Her Excellency Dhiyana Saeed, has put forward a number of recommendations to make our organization more effective. And I hope, during this summit, we will support all efforts to revitalise SAARC.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have a busy agenda. We may not be able to conclude everything in our in-trays. Quite rightly, our Association is based on consensus. SAARC is not a vehicle for revolution, but a vehicle for evolution. Nevertheless, I hope we can build stronger bridges between our nations, bridges of trade, travel and tourism, economic, commercial and financial links, stronger ties on maritime and climate security, and improved governance and democratic connections.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Excellencies,

We have many reasons to be optimistic. The fundamentals of our region are strong. We have young, energetic populations. We live in a region of vibrant democracies, with strong civil societies.

As our economies race ahead, our political importance increases ever more. Let us not be held back by history or convention. Let us be the leaders our people want us to be. Let us change our region for the better. Let us change the world.

Thank you.