Increasing regional cooperation in Southeast Asia will bring social and economic improvements to the area, according to Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honorable Lakshman Kadirgamar. Kadirgamar spoke Tuesday in the ICC Auditorium on the topic: “South Asia in the Emerging World.” Kadirgamar mainly discussed the issue of increasing regional cooperation in Southeast Asia. In particular, he dealt with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which was established in 1985. Member countries include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. According to Kadirgamar, these countries comprise a region, in which “the disparities are enormous [but] … the human resources are quite formidable.” SAARC was founded in the mid-eighties because a number of countries felt the need for a regional association. According to Kadirgamar, “the shared history and cultural heritage” provided a basis for the establishment of a hitherto unknown regional council. The major aims of SAARC are to promote collaboration and mutual assistance in economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields. Kadirgamar said that at the 1988 annual summit in Islamabad, Pakistan, a further aim was established “in the promotion of contact between peoples in a variety of ways.” In particular, the elaboration of a visa scheme to improve political and economic contacts among the member countries was implemented. Since then “the category of those eligible for visa-free travel has been expanded significantly,” he said. Whereas “the first decade of SAARC’s existence has been one of consolidation,” the regional association has been moving into the international arena ever since the beginning of the nineties. Kadirgamar said that the member countries of SAARC “for the first time made a common statement at the Earth Summit in Rio [de Janiero] in 1992.” At the summit, the SAARC countries jointly called for the preservation of the environment. Since then, more “progress has been made [in terms of common platforms],” he said. ost recently, the crisis over nuclear testing between Pakistan and India raised concerns that the future of SAARC was in danger. According to Kadirgamar, whose nation took over chairmanship of SAARC for 1998, there was a widespread feeling that “this [nuclear testing] should not prevent SAARC from moving ahead in economic matters.” The foreign minister said that “Pakistan and India did not stand in the way,” and that both countries’ prime ministers “behaved impeccably” at a meeting in Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo earlier in the year. An important declaration was signed at this year’s SAARC summit in Colombo. Its content was “almost entirely economic,” Kadirgamar said. He said that one of the declaration’s main points is that “SAARC will move to a free trade area until 2001.” The early date should be regarded as “an indication of the political commitment” of the leaders in SAARC’s member countries, he added. Work on a proposed social charter for the SAARC member countries has started as well. This social charter will deal with the issues of “trafficking in women and children, narcotics and the abuse of children,” Kadirgamar said. Kadirgamar said that at the United Nations General Assembly meeting last week in New York “for the first time a meeting took place between [representatives of] the European Union and SAARC.” It was agreed to establish a SAARC-European Union fund. The fund’s main objective will be to give technical support to the SAARC’s member countries. According to Kadirgamar, “SAARC has opened a new chapter in its existence.

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