Nepali Times
"The Summit is not just a photo-opportunity"

Nihal Rodrigo is a seasoned Sri Lankan diplomat, but the byzantine world of South Asian politics may have been too much even for him. After an aborted summit two years ago, Rodrigo is finishing his stint as SAARC Secretary-general just when the summit is finally taking place in Kathmandu 4-6 January. While supervising preparations this week for the Summit, Nihal Rodrgio found time to tell us (diplomatically) what he thinks of South Asian politics, SAARC, Track Two and his creative urges.

Q. How difficult was it to get everyone to agree to come this time?
A. The commitment to SAARC has not diminished although the official process tended to slacken in the last two years. Informal consultations were being held on convening the Eleventh Summit by Sri Lanka as Chairperson and by Nepal as the host country. I myself took every opportunity to urge all Member States to convene the Summit as early as possible. Confidence needed to be built through meetings of first the senior officials and then the standing committee which Sri Lanka hosted outside the regular schedule of meetings. The question of actual dates became a problem when other constraints were removed. It was difficult to find a set of dates which seven Heads of State all found convenient. In the last fortnight, I have had meetings with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, the Prime Minister of India and the President of Pakistan in their capitals and they are fully committed to the dates that have now been finalized. Earlier Mr Mahat and Mr Acharya visited all the capitals formally handing over the invitation for the Summit.

Q. Is it going to be just a photo opportunity?
A. No. This Summit will be quite significant. Many of the administrative and financial matters have already been settled at the Special Session of the Standing Committee in Colombo. There is, therefore, more time for issues of substance. Poverty alleviation, for example. India and Pakistan call poverty the main enemy. And the social issue - women and children. A Social Charter for SAARC will set targets for the region on education, health, children, women, population stabilization and so on. Two regional conventions will be signed. One on children and the other against trafficking of women and children for prostitution. These would be major steps because member states sign on the dotted line, as it were.

Q. But on the political level?
A. As you know, SAARC concentrates on economic, social, technical and cultural issues. Political issues are taboo according to the Charter. However, at summits, there are informal bilateral talks outside the framework of the Conference. These are conducted in private and are entirely decided by the countries concerned. The SAARC Secretariat has nothing to do with these meetings which are at the discretion of the countries concerned.

Q. Is terrorism going to eclipse the SAARC agenda this time?
A. Naturally, terrorism has become a major issue particularly after the September mass terrorist attack in the US. Terrorism has, however, been a problem over many years for many countries in South Asia, particularly for Sri Lanka about which, being a Sri Lankan, I have no inhibitions to talk about. SAARC has a convention against terrorism but there are many legal and other impediments to its implementation. Frankly, as it stands, it is not very effective. I believe that the Sri Lanka delegation is proposing a meeting of legal experts to study the Convention in order to deal with whatever constraints there are. Questions of definition and so on pose major difficulties and even the UN Adhoc Committee has been hamstrung on this issue. What we need is a firm condemnation of terrorism in all its manifestations and practical action to encourage greater cooperation to deal with it.

Q. Is SAARC going to get anywhere as long as the political will isn't there?
A. Relations among member states within any regional grouping, whether it be ASEAN or EU or SAARC, tend to fluctuate. Naturally, when good relations are at their peak, much more can be achieved.

Q. Isn't intra-South Asian trade and economic cooperation the place to start, why wait for the political will?
A. I think you touched on an important aspect. There are two views: one states that unless there is political will, nothing significant, beyond technical exchange etc., is possible. The other states that if there is economic cooperation that would create a certain ambience and would have a healthy influence on political relations. One cannot separate the two processes and I believe it was President Bandaranaike who made the point at the Colombo Summit when she stated that both processes should be encouraged and advanced without holding one process up until there is progress in the other.

Q. Was SAFTA too ambitious?
A. Only about 4 per cent of South Asia's global trade is intra-regional trade. There is, of course, what is politely called informal trade as well as trade between SAARC countries contracted through third countries. The actual potential is immense. SAFTA was meant also as a process of confidence-building. SAARC was expected to complete drafting of a Treaty Framework for South Asia by the end of this year. This is obviously not possible. However, we have moved beyond rhetoric on the virtues of regional trade to the point where we have identified a series of problems that need to be resolved. The Secretariat has prepared a draft treaty framework using inputs from the corporate sector as well as examples of the European Union and American Free Trade Area. Although the situations are obviously not the same, there are parallels - for example, how did a country like Portugal fit into the European Community with powerful economies like the German? A number of issues have been identified in our draft Treaty such as rules of origin; non-tariff barriers; compensation for revenue that would be lost; fitting in existing bilateral FTAs (Nepal and India or Bhutan and India) into a regional framework; transit rights of land-locked states like Bhutan and Nepal; and schedules that would provide the smaller economies more time to open up their trade. The delay has been because all these issues require clearance at a higher policy level, say ministerial level. Unfortunately, as you know, we have not been able to have ministerial-level meetings for quite some time until agreement was reached for commerce ministers to meet in Delhi in August this year.

Q. Is there a problem with South Asia that it will never really cooperate regionally because of the imbalances and India's gravitational pull?
A. South Asia is a region of tremendous asymmetry, not merely in terms of size but obviously in terms of economic strength as well. In addition, India is the central state not only metaphorically but also because of its size, and geographically in that it borders all countries in the region. Again one has to look at the example of other free trade areas such as AFTA, for example, where Mexico has been able to fit in with two major economies such as the US and Canada. ASEAN has the same problem since the accession to membership by Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They call it the "development gap" which they are trying to reduce. The problem is not insurmountable but it will take time.

Q. So we will never be like ASEAN, or the EU?
A. Not being an astrologer, I cannot give you a firm answer. However, SAARC has only recently looked seriously at economic cooperation. Although SAARC was established in 1985, it was only in the early 90s that the Association felt confident enough to take on core economic issues. Tariff negotiations through SAPTA began only in 1995 with the coming into operation of the SAPTA Treaty. We are only now really grappling with the problems of establishing a free trade area - only after the Colombo Summit. ASEAN has been around for over 30 years.

Q. Is the Track Two dead on the tracks?
A. Actually, Track Two and the activities of civil society in South Asia have increased in the last two years - I am not sure whether this is "because" or "despite" the considerable slowing down of the policy level official meetings. I believe on the eve of the Summit that a number of Track Two initiatives have been launched which include former prime ministers, foreign ministers, SAARC secretaries general; academics and so on. My only concern is that parallel tracks never meet. Unless there is some direct interaction between the governmental process and the parallel Track Two approaches, they will go into infinity without meeting. During my three years, I have tried to bring the two together. Conclusions and recommendations of civil society have been made available to the official SAARC process and some of these have been taken in account.

Q. How frustrating is to be Secretary-General? Have you left any survival tips for your successor?
A. Yes, the last two years have been difficult and required tremendous patience. However, I still remain a firm believer in the need for greater cooperation in South Asia at all levels. SAARC as an institution has its own drawbacks but it is the only framework endorsed by all seven Member States and their leaders. I have also made several suggestions about the institutional mechanisms of SAARC and its decision-making process. These reviews, as you might call them, are proceeding and some of them will be taken up in Kathmandu, hopefully for decision. My successor is an old friend and a SAARC-wallah. He has been a Director in the Secretariat and knows it well from inside. I came from the outside but with several years dealing with South Asian countries at the bilateral levels as well as in the SAARC context at a number of Summits and other meetings I was involved in. I was, therefore, more impatient as things worked faster in the bilateral context but I do not regret having taken on the job.

Q. How busy is the job of Secretary-General? Was there enough time for your painting?
A. I was certainly kept busy but often for matters which would in other times not have taken that much time. Fixing of dates of meetings, for example, was much more torturous a process. Too much mini and micro... I did not have much time for painting but the experience of Nepal is very much with me and I hope to return sometime to pour it all out - painting, a novel, I don't really know. A book on South Asia (non-fiction) is of course in production stage.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)