Secretary of Defence speaks at the joint panel discussion by Pakistan HC Colombo - INSSSL on "SAARC its Impediments and Way Forward", 6th Feb 2016.
Your Excellencies, Chief of Defence Staff, distinguished military officers, esteemed scholars, journalists, ladies and gentlemen.
It gives me immense pleasure to be here this evening to address this esteemed gathering. I would like to make special note of the fact that this is the first joint event that is co-hosted by the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka and the High Commission of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I should mention that within a short period of time, INSSSL has proven to be one of the leading think tanks in this country, introducing timely and strategic discussions.
At a time when the very existence of SAARC might be threatened, His Excellency President Maithripala Sirisena, emphasised that “every country of the SAARC region should act with unity.” At a meeting with Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, Pakistani Air Force Commander last year, President Sirisena thanked Pakistan for the continuous assistance given to Sri Lanka for the training of security force personnel and also expressed his gratitude to Pakistan for extending support to Sri Lanka at international forums. Air Marshal Aman also said that Sri Lanka and Pakistan have an excellent record of defence sector cooperation and it is important that this kind of support and cooperation takes place between all countries in SAARC.
The challenges and difficulties our South Asian countries face are particularly severe. As one of the poorest regions in the world, with the number of people below the poverty line rising every year, we are a long way from reaching the target of poverty alleviation. In recent years, although some countries have made significant progress in economic growth, their influence in the region is still limited. Despite numerous poverty alleviation programmes in these countries, millions of people are living with limited access to nutrition, drinking water, education and health services. Thus, it is imperative for member states to cooperate and prioritize the Sustainable Development Goals and further the development agenda. Furthermore, improving economic and trade cooperation, constraints in bilateral relations and eradicating terrorism in the region are some of the challenges SAARC will face in the years to come.
During the past 31 years, owing to the combined efforts of member states, SAARC has made progress and praiseworthy achievements in promoting trade, strengthening energy cooperation, food security, improving social welfare, providing educational opportunities and in the battle against terrorism. Such efforts have been recognised and praised by the governments and people of South Asia and many countries around the world. These achievements are testament to the significance of regional cooperation as it acts as a symbol of growing mutual trust. However, in some instances, the conditions of mutual respect have been lacking and therefore, SAARC as an organisation for regional cooperation has not been able to achieve its full potential.
In the past few decades, South Asia has witnessed numerous incidences of violence and extremism and it has more recently become an epicentre for terrorism. Prior to the conclusion of the cold war, terrorism was of national concern to certain states but it has now transformed into a global security challenge. The reach of terror outfits such as ISIS has become global with the ability to cause violence that transcend borders through their possession of considerable ideological power. A point that is of immense concern is the radicalisation of youth as was evident in the recent terror attacks in Bangladesh. It is disturbing that this phenomenon which began in the Middle East and spread to Europe and the United States is now affecting our region and its youth as well.
In South Asia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the worst victims of the affliction of terrorism. Given the severity of this issue, it is important to continue and strengthen the relationships among the member states of SAARC to combat terrorism. The Government of Sri Lanka believes that cooperation among SAARC States is vital if terrorism was to be prevented and eliminated from the region. Emphasising the need to deal with terrorism in a decisive manner, the Sri Lankan government has said that peace and security were essential elements for the success of meaningful regional cooperation for the benefit of the people of South Asia.
The member states forming SAARC are contiguous, share common history and common cultural values. SAARC can learn from the success of other regional organizations and work in a similar fashion. SAARC needs to expand its vision and be more inclusive and open to establish new linkages. Interactions among private and informal sectors are important. Inter-regional connectivity needs to be enhanced and civil societies should be provided with more opportunities of interaction. Through mutual trust and cooperation, the member states of SAARC will be able to combat any challenge the region may face in the future.