‘Peace possible through social exchanges’
LAHORE: Peace in South Asia can be achieved if there is greater social contact, cultural exchanges and economic cooperation between the people of India and Pakistan, the speakers at a symposium on ‘Regional Cooperation in South Asia’ said on Wednesday.
Speaking at the inaugural session of the two-day symposium, arranged by the South Asia Centre for Policy Studies (SACEPS) and held at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), former foreign minister Sardar Asif Ahmad Ali said the leaders of India and Pakistan do not comprehend the destruction a nuclear war could cause in South Asia, otherwise they would not continuously threaten each other.
Mr Ali said the people of both countries wanted peace, but that New Delhi and Islamabad must soften their rhetoric, and then a gradual solution to all problems could be reached. He said the best way to reach peace was to first find the political will, and then prepare a feasible and practical framework regarding discussions. “In the current scenario, the response from Pakistan’s leaders, media and business communities has been much more forthcoming than India’s,” Mr Ali said, adding the developments towards peace so far were nothing concrete, but still promising.
“We need a cautious framework for talks and must agree on broader principles,” he said, adding all issues should be handled simultaneously. About the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Mr Ali said its progress was ‘disappointing’, apart from the achievements of the SAARC secretariat. He added that a revival of the association was critical at this point.
He proposed that there be three separate SAARC commissions with the mandate to take decisions independently, the first on Kashmir and related issues, such as human rights, cross-border terrorism, working boundary, and so no; the second working on peace and security, to avert war; and the third working on economic concerns, like the World Trade Organisation, transit rules, and so on. He said the there was plenty of potential for increased trade, joint ventures and cultural exchanges within South Asia.
Mr Ali said India and Pakistan should not roll back their nuclear programmes, but ensure non-proliferation in the region and cut back on military spending, particularly on missiles. SACEPS India Chairman Professor Arjun K Sengupta said the conflicts between New Delhi and Islamabad affected the entire region. He said though conflicts should be solved primarily on a political basis, both countries need a social charter prepared by their civil societies.
“Some time ago no one would think Germany and Spain could sit together, but now they are on the same side. All this was built upon social understanding and economic cooperation,” he added. “The coming generations could also enjoy a South Asian Society just by improving relations between SARRC countries and overcoming conflict,” he said.
Maldives Minister for Planning and National Development Ibrahim Hussain Zakki said Maldives has the best Gross Domestic Product (GDP) performance in the region and should soon be recognised as a developed country. He said at a time when the WTO regime was swiftly approaching, SARRC could be significant only by firm commitment. “We do not have research capabilities and we should strive for this as early as possible if we want to compete with giant economies,” he said.
He hoped the next SAARC summit in Islamabad would be held soon, but added that the postponement of the summit should not have been allowed to happen.
An independent economist and member of SACEPS Sri Lanka, Dr Saman Kalegama, said reports on the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) would be presented at the next SAARC summit, but added SACEPS had faced lots of problems because of the absence of a coherent regional policy. He said a consensus was developed on the Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIM) Agreement.
Former Bangladesh government adviser and SACEPS Executive Director Professor Rehman Sobhan said peace in South Asia was ‘hostage’ to a political agenda, so it was important to promote contacts between societies rather than governments. “We are neighbours by compulsion, not by choice, and we have to interact with each other not on our wishes but because of emerging global market forces,” he said.
He said reports on the SAARC Social Charter, Energy Cooperation in South Asia, macro economic policy, common investment policy, trade related issues and a strategy for the next round of WTO negotiations would be presented in the next SARRC meeting.
SACEPS member and LUMS pro-chancellor Syed Babar Ali spoke about the working of SACEPS in his opening speech.