M A I N   N E W S

SAARC agrees on terror protocol
Meet to evolve framework for free trade area
T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

Islamabad, January 2
The fledgling SAARC summit is trying to break free from its own contradictions and distrust with the grouping’s council of ministers, taking the bold step today to sign the additional protocol on terrorism and evolve the framework for the South Asian Free Trade Arrangement (SAFTA).

External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha did not hold back the upbeat environment with the two contentious issues virtually being clinched and observing that the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad was going to be an “extremely successful and historic one.”

Mr Sinha, however, refused to end the suspense whether there would be a bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the three-day SAARC summit which begins on Sunday. Responding to questions, he said: “I’d rather that the suspense continues for some more time.”

Despite some discordant notes in the preparatory meetings for the summit, India suggested that the proposal of the Eminent Persons Group for a South Asian Economic Union by 2020 be advanced by five years to 2015 now that SAFTA would be in place as of January 1, 2006.

Even as Mr Sinha noted that India’s suggestions received appreciative support, Pakistan said the idea of having a single currency and economic union among the SAARC grouping was premature and needed to be pursued.

“This is premature. We cannot have such a cooperation without resolving the political issues,” Mr Masood Khan, the foreign office spokesman of Pakistan said here this evening. “I believe this is ideal but these ideas need to be pursued as it is premature at this juncture,” Mr Khan added.

The seven foreign ministers continue their session tomorrow to finalise the report for the consideration of the summiteers.

Mr Sinha emphasised that the additional protocol on terrorism enjoined on the member countries to assume additional responsibilities as the 1987 SAARC convention on this subject remained incomplete. “Much water has flowed under the bridge since 1987.”

Clearly, there was an element of unease among member countries at the prospect of the additional protocol on terrorism falling by the wayside. This had assumed significance as terrorist violence was adversely affecting all the countries in the grouping.

Mr Sinha said he was looking forward to the emergence of concrete programme of cooperation among SAARC countries describing the additional protocol on terrorism and SAFTA as “significant breakthrough.”

Responding to questions, he stressed that regional cooperation would get translated into bilateral cooperation not only between India and Pakistan but also among other SAARC members.

When his attention was drawn to the issue of non-resolution of disputes among member states, Mr Sinha said the SAARC Charter did not allow the grouping to play any role in dispute resolution.

The External Affairs Minister sought to put at rest any misgivings about the proposed South Asia Economic Union. The Economic Union concept was accepted internationally and “nobody should read any other meaning into it.”

Briefing mediapersons here this afternoon, Foreign Secretary D. Shashank said the decisions taken by the Foreign Ministers has ensured that the January 4-6 SAARC summit “becomes historic.”

The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) had again run into difficulties specially because all the member countries are not familiar with the operation of such an arrangement. The negotiations in this regard which had gained momentum in the last one year has been positive to protect the interest of domestic politics. The Standing Committee got over most of the differences and on the advice of the Foreign Ministers, SAFTA had become a reality. And the text of SAFTA is being cleaned up. The Governors of the Central Banks of SAARC member countries have been asked to hold further discussions for promoting and protecting the investments under the multilateral trading arrangement. SAFTA will take effect from January 1, 2006.

Agreement on the Social Charter was a formality and will be signed by the Summiteers at the conclusion of the SAARC summit on January 6 and become operational immediately. The additional protocol on terrorism will be initialed by the Foreign Ministers.

External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha proposed setting up of a special project of Freedom from Hunger in South Asia coupled with a SAARC food bank. India has been asked to prepare a detailed concept paper in the next three months.

India has also pledged a contribution of Rs 21.5 million for conferences in giving concrete shape to the Freeing the SAARC region from hunger and giving an added impetus to the SAARC food bank.

Asked if a bilateral dialogue with Pakistan on the sidelines of the SAARC summit is now on the cards, Mr Shashank said, “My answer is the same. There is no change. No meeting has been fixed between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with either Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf or Prime Minister Zafrullah Khan Jamali.” 

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