“United we prosper, divided we disappear”, says Arjun Bahadur Thapa, Secretary General of SAARC

Interview of Arjun Bahadur Thapa, Secretary General of SAARC

By Agha Iqrar Haroon

iqrar

 

 

 

 

 

 

“United we prosper, divided we disappear. Our region is a reservoir of opportunities and with better understanding in the region, we will be able to turn this century into the SAARC Century”.

This is observed by His Excellency Arjun Bahadur Thapa, Secretary General of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) during his exclusive long distance interview with Agha Iqrar Haroon Special Correspondent of Dispatch News Desk (DND) and Correspondent for eTN United States in Pakistan and Central Asia.   

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His Excellency Arjun Bahadur Thapa, Secretary General of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

When asked to share priorities that can bring prosperity to this region he said:

Firstly, SAARC is of and for the people of South Asia; so all the programmes and activities of SAARC must be people-centric. Secondly, concerted efforts must be made to bolster cooperation in trade and economy.  Thirdly, intra-regional connectivity must be strengthened to allow free movement of people, goods and services among Member States.

When asked about the prospects of tourism development in the region, he maintained that the Tourism Action Plan for SAARC includes a joint pro-active marketing or promotional campaign for presenting SAARC landmass as a composite destination in the international markets. “The Action plan also emphasizes on the role of the private sector of the SAARC region for the promotion and development of tourism both intra-regionally and internationally. Within a few years, I am hopeful that this facility may also be offered by Member States of SAARC to foreign nationals traveling to our region, but this would need to be integrated with coordinated tourism facilities within the region”, he added.

When asked about initiatives taken by SAARC for capacity building of population of this regional body, he said that SAARC is developing and intend to implement more investment projects in poverty alleviation, focusing on skill development, local research mobilization, capacity building, standardization and employment generation, aiming to establish a regional value chain and bringing the region more closely during the decade of poverty alleviation. Interview with His Excellency Arjun Bahadur Thapa is hereunder:

1-        His Excellency Arjun Bahadur Thapa, Secretary General of SAARC, Dispatch News Desk expresses gratitude for having your interview. Please share with us how SAARC works for the economic growth of SAARC countries?  

SAARC has taken significant steps towards economic integration of South Asian region. It is a well established fact that economic linkages between nations of a region spur economic growth and SAARC has also made a contribution in this respect in its 8 Member-States. Although SAARC adopted economic agenda after 10 years of its establishment by way of SAPTA (South Asian preferential Trade Agreement), it is in the last decade that we have seen substantial progress in the area. The main reason for this is the signing and implementation of SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area) in 2006, the cumulative trade under SAFTA has now crossed US$ 3 billion since its implementation. Enabling agreements in the areas of standardization, arbitration, mutual conformity assessment, trade in services, double taxation avoidance etc have also been signed and are being implemented.  A SAARC Development Fund has also been established for funding regional social, economic projects. Besides, there is also extensive cooperation in financial matters among Member States of SAARC.

There are also challenges, the intra-regional trade and intra-regional investments are much below the potential.  Connectivity is also an issue. It is a fact that SAARC needs to do much more compared to other regional groupings.

2.         What are common threats and common opportunities sharing by SAARC countries?  

I see no threats, but opportunities abound with SAARC. A forum of eight countries in South Asia that are bound by ties of history and culture, SAARC is a manifestation of the determination of its Member States to promote peace, stability, amity and progress in the region through strict adherence to the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and peaceful settlement of disputes.  SAARC aims to promote peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity by fostering mutual understanding, good neighbourly relations and meaningful cooperation among its Member States. Moreover, SAARC provides a platform to its Member States to share their common problems and find common solutions to them. SAARC, therefore, can be the vehicle through which the region as a whole could achieve prosperity for the good of its peoples. So, SAARC is all about opportunities in abundance for the mutual benefit of its Member States.

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3.         SAARC has different working Groups. How these groups integrate their knowledge and how they work? (Example -Working Group on Energy etc)

SAARC has four Working Groups, namely, on Bio-technology; Energy; ICT and Telecommunications; and Tourism. Represented by senior officials, preferably at the level of Secretary, these Working Groups bring together technical experts from Member States to discuss specialized issues to promote mutual collaboration in them. They formulate programmes, oversee their implementation and evaluate the progress in their respective areas. In recommending target-bound programmes and activities, they propose mechanisms and sources of finance to implement them. They also develop, whenever necessary, common approaches at international fora, besides carrying out directives from higher bodies of SAARC and acting as preparatory bodies for relevant Ministerial meetings. They meet at least once in a year and report to the Standing Committee of Foreign Secretaries through the Programming Committee.

4.         South Asia is the largest growing market in Tourism industry. However there is reported lack of interaction among National Tourism Organizations (NTOs) of SAARC member countries and there is still no campaign to blend this region as one product. What is your opinion and how can we grow regional tourism among SAARC states and also making SAARC as one product by offering blending tours?

Not only as a major component of economic growth but as means of facilitating people to people contacts, the significant role of tourism has been recognized since the early days of SAARC and reiterated by successive SAARC Summits. SAARC Tourism Ministers and working group meet from time to time. So far, the Ministers have met three times and the Working Group has met four times. The last Ministers’ Meeting was held in Kathmandu in January 2011 preceded by the Fourth Working Group Meeting. A SAARC Action Plan on Promotion of Tourism has been adopted by the second meeting of Tourism Ministers (Bangladesh, 2006) and has been pursued since then. The Action Plan includes a joint pro-active marketing or promotional campaign of the SAARC landmass as a composite destination in the international markets. The Action plan also emphasizes on the role of the private sector of the SAARC region for the promotion and development of tourism both intra-regionally and internationally.

5.         Do you think that SAARC can plan to offer SAARC Regional Visa to foreigners as offered by GCC states and EU?

Presently, the SAARC Visa is being offered to a diverse number of categories, which, inter alia, include leading businessmen and industrialists, Journalists, sportsmen, Heads of Educational and Financial institutions, Heads of a number of Apex/Recognized bodies as well as a number of officials from the government sector. Presently, Immigration authorities from Member States are considering enhancement of this facility to include more categories in the list. Within a few years, I am hopeful that this facility may also be offered by Member States of SAARC to foreign nationals traveling to our region, but this would need to be integrated with coordinated tourism facilities within the region.

6.         What SAARC has done to ease Visa restrictions or soft visa opportunities to people of SAARC countries?

First initiative is the SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme, which is in operation since 1992. Secondly, the conclusion of a ‘Tourism Agreement’ within SAARC aims at facilitation of acquiring visas within the region for tourists from Member States. Also, businessmen and other selected personnel, who might have to frequently travel to any of the Member States, are issued the SAARC Visa, facilitating their travel within any of the SAARC countries.

7.            The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme was launched in 1992.  What is the status of this initiative?

Establishment of a Special SAARC Travel Document was approved during the Fifth SAARC Summit (Malé, 21-23 November 1990). The Scheme was subsequently launched in 1992. Presently, this scheme is under operation, and the SAARC Visas are being issued in relevant categories by the respective Foreign Ministries or respective Interior/Home Ministries, upon recommendation/approval by the Foreign/External Ministries in each of the Member States.

The ‘SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme’ was subsequently categorized into two categories, including:

SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme under Category A: Which covers Dignitaries, Government Officials, participants of SAARC meetings and officials of the Secretariat and its Regional Centres.

Liberalization of Visa Scheme under Category B:  This Category covers general/public categories including businessmen, sportsmen, journalists, and heads of institutions/organizations etc.

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8.            Can you share the working of SAARC Regional Centers with our readers? How these Regional Centers promote regional cooperation?  

All the Regional Centres were established with specific theme where they were supposed to work as the Centre of Excellence of the region in their respective areas.  SAARC has eleven Regional Centres, most of them are supporting the region with their research, training and other relevant programmes to enhance the capacity of the region.  Despite their efforts, some Regional Centres need to re-boost and re-organize their activities for achieving the objectives of SAARC, as stated in its Charter and their mandate.  The Secretariat has recently conducted a Study and made some recommendations in this regard, where the study has realized the areas for re-structuring and revamping the existing mechanism and their working pattern.

9.         SAARC has dedicated decades for different causes and 2006-2015 decade is dedicated for Poverty Alleviation. Please share with us what we have already achieved to alleviate poverty during this decade and through what measures and initiatives SAARC is building social wellbeing of SAARC regions?

SAARC has identified Poverty Alleviation as an overarching objective of SAARC since its establishment.  Accordingly, SAARC has given due priorities to poverty alleviation in its activities programmes through its Declarations.  In this regard, SAARC institutionalized the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) into a regional SAARC Development Goals (SDGs) with more detailed elaboration of MDGs in the regional context and has started monitoring the progress in achievement of the same through its publication of Regional Poverty Profiles (RPPs).  It has also declared the decade 2006-2015 as the decade for poverty alleviation.  During the period, SAARC has operationalized social window of SAARC Development Fund (SDF), which works basically in the area of poverty alleviation.  So far, almost nine projects are being implemented with investment of more than 60 million US dollar.  SAARC is developing and intend to implement more investment projects in poverty alleviation, focusing on skill development, local research mobilization, capacity building, standardization and employment generation, aiming to establish a regional value chain and bringing the region more closely during the decade of poverty alleviation.

MDGs and its successive Post-2015 Development Agenda are also very important, since the MDGs framework is expiring in 2015.  It is equally important for the region to have some common position to reflect them in the Post 2015 development framework.

10.       What are your plans for enhancing interaction among people of SAARC states?

SAARC attaches high priority to the promotion of people-to-people contact in the region to foster mutual understanding and goodwill among the peoples of South Asia. While it is an inter-governmental Association, successive Summits have emphasized on the importance of promoting people-to-people contact at all levels outside the State sector. In order to realize this objective, a number of initiatives have been taken.

With a view to enriching and supplementing inter-governmental regional efforts in promoting socio-economic and cultural development in South Asia, the Association encourages interaction across the region among professional bodies, private corporate sector, civil society groups and creative artists.  To further facilitate and acknowledge their work, the Association grants formal recognition to these bodies under two categories: SAARC Apex Bodies and SAARC Recognized Bodies. Currently, there are 6 SAARC Apex and 16 SAARC Recognized Bodies.

Also, the South Asia Forum was established by SAARC Leaders for generation of debate, discussion and exchange of ideas on South Asia and its future development.  The Forum consists of eminent personalities of diverse background including from all SAARC Member States and is providing inputs, based on a comprehensive understanding, for charting out the future course of SAARC.

The Steering Committee for the South Asia Forum finalized the Objectives, Scope and Guidelines for the Forum including the theme, format, agenda and participation for the first meeting of the South Asia Forum. The First Meeting of the South Asia Forum was successfully held in New Delhi on 8-9 September 2011 under the overarching theme of “Integration in South Asia: Moving Towards a South Asian Economic Union.” The Forum brought together policy makers, eminent personalities, academia, business leaders and representatives of civil society from all Member States. The Forum facilitated discussions and exchange of ideas among stakeholders within and outside of government.

In addition, the Association of Speakers of SAARC countries have been meeting since 1992 which essentially is a forum for exchange of ideas and information on parliamentary practices and procedures. Its main objectives are to strengthen people-to-people contact with a view to achieving mutual understanding, trust and friendship among the people of SAARC countries and also to promote contact, coordinate and exchange experiences among parliaments and Parliamentarians of SAARC countries.

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11.       H.E you have been a career diplomat and served also as Foreign Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal therefore you understand regional diplomacy of South Asian countries very well. How can SAARC help to resolve some regional conflicts and offer better People to people contact?

It is true that bilateral and contentious issues are excluded from the deliberations of SAARC.  However, the Charter Body Meetings of SAARC, namely, the Summit, Council of Ministers and the Standing Committee do provide ample opportunities for the Heads of State or Government, Foreign Ministers and Foreign Secretaries respectively to hold talks bilaterally or multilaterally on the sidelines of these meetings. I must mention that these talks have been fruitful in resolving bilateral and multilateral issues, if there have been any.

12.       If I ask you to share with me three important decisions that can make a real change in the wellbeing of people of SAARC countries— what these three initiatives should be?

Firstly, SAARC is of and for the people of South Asia; so all the programmes and activities of SAARC must be people-centric. Secondly, concerted efforts must be made to bolster cooperation in trade and economy.  Thirdly, intra-regional connectivity must be strengthened to allow free movement of people, goods and services among Member States.

13.       SAARC countries are heavens for fruits and produce some special fruits that are not available outside SAARC countries. What fruit you like most?

I like Kiwi and Dragon fruits.

14.          What colour you like most?

I like blue color the most.

15.          What season you like most (summer—winter etc etc)

I like autumn.

16.          Any message you wish to share people of SAARC countries?  

I would like to share with the peoples of South Asia that united we prosper, divided we disappear. Our region is a reservoir of opportunities and with better understanding in the region, we will be able to turn this century into the SAARC Century.

 

Profile of His Excellency Arjun Bahadur Thapa
Name:
Arjun Bahadur Thapa
Date of Birth:
12 January 1956
Marital Status:
Married with three children.
Academic Qualifications:
Masters in International Law (Honors), Peoples Friendship University, Moscow (1983)
Diploma in Environmental Management, The University of Adelaide, Australia (1994)
Work Experience:
– Secretary General of SAARC (1 March 2014 to date)
– Joined the Government Service of Nepal as Section Officer in 1983
– Foreign Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal (July 21, 2013 -15 January 2014)
– Joint Secretary, Head of Regional Organization Division (SAARC & BIMSTEC) and Spokesperson, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal (April 2012- July 21, 2013)
– Joint Secretary, Head of Europe-Americas Division, Administration Division, SAARC and BIMSTEC and Spokesperson, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal (February 2012- April 2013)
– Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Nepal to the United Arab Emirates (December 2007- January 2012)
– Joint Secretary, Head of the SAARC and Administration Divisions and Spokesperson, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal (February 2007- December 2007)
– Deputy Permanent Representative/Minister Plenipotentiary, Permanent Mission of Nepal to the UN, New York (August 2006-February 2007)
– Charge d’ Affaires, a.i., Permanent Mission of Nepal to the UN, New York (November 2005-August 2006)
– Deputy Permanent Representative/ Minister Plenipotentiary, Permanent Mission of Nepal to the UN, New York (December 2002-November 2005)
– Joint Secretary, East, South East, Far East and the Pacific Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal (Joined the Diplomatic Service through open competition) (June 1999 – December 2002)
– Under Secretary, International Law and Treaties Division, Ministry of Law and Justice (1994-1999)
– Assistant Secretary, International Law and Treaties Division, Ministry of Law and Justice (1993-1994)
– Section Officer, International Law and Treaties Division, Ministry of Law and Justice (1983-1993)
Countries Visited:
Austria, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belgium, Bhutan, China (including Hong Kong, Macao and Tibet), Egypt, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea (DPRK), Korea (Republic of), Kuwait, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, The Netherlands, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand, Uganda, UK, United Arab Emirates, USA.
Publication:
The Nepalese Law of Treaties, Kathmandu (1992)
Decoration:
Decorated with Gorkha Dakshin Bahu (IV Class), 1995

 

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