Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Thursday reiterated Pakistan's willingness to host the 19th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) in Islamabad "at the earliest", expressing the hope that the "artificial obstacles" created in its way would be removed.
Speaking at a virtual informal meeting of the Saarc Council of Ministers on the sidelines of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Qureshi also stressed the need to adopt a regional approach through the platform of Saarc to tackle the numerous challenges facing the region, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
Islamabad was to host the 19th summit of the regional bloc in November 2016, but India on that occasion forced its cancellation by pulling out of the meeting on the pretext of “increasing cross-border terrorist attacks in the region and growing interference in internal affairs of member states by one country”.
It was later joined by its regional allies Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan, all of whom also pulled out citing concerns about terrorism and external interference in an implied criticism of Pakistan.
Pakistan has not been able to convene the event for the fourth year now because of a virtual Indian veto. Participation of all member states is mandatory for the convening of a Saarc summit.
"In the spirit of regionalism and as per Pakistan’s commitment to the Saarc platform I would like to reiterate Pakistan’s willingness for hosting the 19th Saarc Summit at Islamabad at the earliest," Qureshi told the meeting. "We hope that the artificial obstacles created in its way would be removed and Saarc would be enabled to function as an effective instrument of regional cooperation."
In his remarks, the minister said Saarc upholds the principle of sovereign equality which he said forms the basis for meaningful regional cooperation.
"Pakistan will continue to play a proactive role towards the success of this important organisation," he added.
Qureshi noted that the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the "worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1930s" which has had a huge impact on economies and nations.
He said Pakistan has been "successful in containing and controlling the virus" by following the strategy of 'smart' lockdowns, along with testing, tracing and quarantining.
"Our efforts in finding a balance between lives and livelihoods [were] helpful in mitigating the impact of the pandemic," he said, adding that the government had provided support to the vulnerable segments of society through the prime minister’s $8 billion relief package.
Qureshi said "although Pakistan may have controlled the pandemic within its boundaries, we believe that a regional approach is needed to stop the spread of Covid-19 and save lives and livelihoods of the people of South Asia."
He noted that Pakistan had hosted the Saarc Health Ministers’ Video Conference on in April to develop a regional response to fight the pandemic and provided an opportunity to member states to learn from each other’s successes and experiences.
He said Prime Minister Imran Khan's appeal to world leaders to launch a ‘Global Initiative for Debt Relief’ had been successful and "the fiscal space thus made available will be helpful in meeting the urgent needs of developing countries to deal with the challenge."
The minister said South Asia's common challenges, including the pandemic, food insecurity, locust invasion and climate change, needed a regional approach for which Saarc "needs to renew its focus on these challenges so that it can be institutionally better prepared to counter these challenges should they arise in future".
"Whereas it may be instinctual to take an inwards looking approach at the time of crisis, the development needs of the people of South Asia can only be fulfilled by pooling resources and taking a regional approach," he stressed, saying Pakistan was ready to play its part in such efforts.
'Resolution of outstanding disputes a pre-requisite for development'
Recalling Saarc's overall performance during the last more than three decades, Qureshi said the bloc's impact on the lives of people "has not lived up to our collective expectations despite horizontal growth of the organisation and its bodies".
"The efforts need to be more focused, result-oriented and in cooperation with more nations and international and regional organisations."
In this regard, he said Pakistan had always been supportive of the idea of upgrading the 'observer' status to 'dialogue partners' of those observer countries that are actively engaged with Saarc countries and can play an important role in regional development.
Qureshi also said the peaceful resolution of outstanding disputes is a "pre-requisite" for achieving development, poverty alleviation and social uplift of South Asia's masses.
"In this context, we strongly emphasise the importance of faithfully following the UN Charter and implementing UN Security Council resolutions."
He called upon the association to "strongly condemn and oppose any unilateral and illegal measures to change the status of disputed territories in violation of UN Security Council resolutions".