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|March 19, 1999||
SAARC foreign ministers laud Lahore Declaration
P Mohan Das in Nuwara Eliya
Foreign ministers of the member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation ended their two-day meeting today after accepting a reference in the standing committee report on the Lahore Declaration adopted by the prime ministers of India and Pakistan.
After much deliberation whether the declaration should find a place in one of the SAARC documents, the foreign ministers agreed to include it as a gesture of goodwill since the declaration itself had hailed SAARC's efforts for regional peace.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who is chairman of the SAARC council of ministers, briefed the press on the outcome of the deliberations, saying, "In the Lahore Declaration there is a reference to SAARC and its initiatives. It is good on our part to reciprocate the gesture."
At the same time, Kadirgamar asserted that the inclusion of a reference to the Lahore Declaration did not in any way alter the SAARC charter.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh later said the "report was based on consensus and it demonstrated the fact that both countries sincerely want to carry forward the declaration in its true spirit".
In fact, the Lahore Declaration was the highlight of the standing committee meetings held at the secretary level. The committee was to have finalised its report yesterday, but failed to do so. Consequently, the secretaries held an unprecedented late afternoon session yesterday, which also failed to reach a consensus.
Later, the foreign ministers, who had a meeting late in the night, asked the committee to have an 'extraordinary session' this morning and include the declaration in some form.
Accordingly, the standing committee met this morning and finalised the report with the reference to the Lahore Declaration.
The foreign ministers later accepted the report which said: "The committee noted with appreciation the reaffirmation of SAARC goals and objectives in the Lahore Declaration adopted by the prime ministers of India and Pakistan with a view to promoting the welfare of the peoples of South Asia."
The foreign ministers' meeting is a halfway mark between the previous summit in Colombo last year and the next in Kathmandu in November this year.
Asked about the hitch in accepting the Lahore Declaration in the standing committee's report, Kadirgamar said there was no hitch. "The issue was whether the Lahore Declaration was to be included and if yes, in what form. Finally we decided to include it. There was complete consensus among all participants on the issue."
Kadirgamar said the foreign ministers accepted a number of recommendations, including the South Asian Free Trade Agreement that will be finalised by 2001.
On its implementation, the expert groups will meet again to formalise the modalities. The initial recommendation is to implement the treaty by 2008 for developing countries and 2010 for least developing countries. But the expert groups will decide this.
Another important decision is the setting up of a social chapter for SAARC and the institution of a South Asian Cultural Institute in Kandy.
Kadirgamar said the third round of negotiations on the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement was successfully concluded and the fourth round will begin in July.
To enhance regional co-operation, the meeting decided to revise downward by 10 per cent, from 50 to 40, the minimum domestic content stipulated by member countries.
It also discussed the feasibility of convertibility of the national currencies of member countries to form a common one.
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