Significant Milestones Promised at S. Asia Regional Summit



India's foreign minister says South Asian heads of government will achieve several significant milestones during their two-day summit, including a legal assistance treaty intended to combat cross-border terrorism. But Pakistan's foreign minister, in a rare criticism from a top official of a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, says the agenda falls far short of what the group should be doing. VOA correspondent Steve Herman in Colombo has details.

Ministers of the eight countries composing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation say they have a tremendous responsibility as they represent more than 20 percent of the world's population. They also note their people compose 40 percent of those living in poverty on the planet and they need to do for in terms of food security, energy resources and reducing poverty.

Seeking to shed its image as a forum for talking but lacking in action, heads of government during the summit Saturday and Sunday here are set to adopt what Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee terms four important frameworks.

"Mutual legal aid treaty amongst all SAARC countries, launching a SAARC development fund, having uniform standards [and] having a SAARC university - South Asian University," he said. "These we we're talking of for quite some time but now these are going to be the reality."

The legal assistance pact would set up a system to share information about criminals to combat regional terrorism. The development fund is aimed at fighting poverty and is to total $300 million. The uniform product standards would hopefully boost the still anemic level of cross-border trade among SAARC members. And the new higher education institute, with an international faculty, is touted to open in 2010 in New Delhi with 5,000 students.

Compared to what SAARC has achieved since the first summit in 1985, these would be significant achievements. But Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, is clearly impatient with SAARC's pace for the early 21st century.

"SAARC represents 1.5 billion people of Asia," he said. "It's an important organization of Asia. Are we ready for that challenge? Is the spirit of SAARC reflecting the challenge of a new era? In my opinion, no."

Besides India and Pakistan and this year's host Sri Lanka, SAARC is composed of Afghanistan (which is the group's newest member), Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal.

Summit agendas are frequently overshadowed by the sidelines meetings in which the heads of government, many of which do not enjoy warm mutual relations, get a rare opportunity to speak privately. This year is no exception with the spotlight again on how the leaders of India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars in 60 years, will interact.



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