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21st March 1999

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picture 01
Clad in an outfit for cooler climes President Kumaratunga,
accompanied by Indian Foreign Minister Jashwant Singh
and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar taking a stroll
on the lawns of the state mansion in Nuwara Eliya.
Pic by J. Weerasekera
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The day SAARC nearly collapsed

By Our Diplomatic Editor

Around 6 p.m. on Wednesday March 17, up in the central highlands of Nuwara Eliya, SAARC nearly collapsed from a fit of bureaucratic asthma.

The foreign secretaries' meeting known as the Standing Committee was held for three full days deliberating. The foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan were sitting on protocol, standing their ground and stubbornly refusing to budge on what has been their traditional hawkish suspicious attitude to each other. A mile demanded, not an inch given.

The contentious issues; whether to include in the final report to be handed over to the foreign ministers, references to the Lahore Declaration (which followed the Vajpayee-Shariff summit earlier this month) and the graduation of the informal dialogue 'process' between member states mentioned in the Male and Colombo Summit Declarations to 'operational' procedures. Pakistan was keen on these two items but not India.

The foreign secretaries had already discussed the Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) report and had prepared a comprehensive draft of the future of SAARC but reference to the two seemingly innocuous but terribly contentious issues as far as the Indian and Pakistani bureaucrats were concerned prevented the standing committee from finalising a draft.

In the meantime the foreign ministers were kicking their heels waiting for the draft from the foreign secretaries. After the Presidential luncheon, an afternoon in salubrious Nuwara Eliya is not the best time to do nothing. Lest they fell asleep the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, Jashwant Singh and Sartaj Aziz, went for a walk together into the woods of the Presidential Lodge.

There they discussed bilateral issues, including the thawing of otherwise hostile relations over the past half century. On their return to the lodge they invited Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, chairman of the ministerial council, to join them.

The inordinate delay by the foreign secretaries was causing concern. Word was trickling in that India and Pakistan had locked horns and were unable to disentangle themselves.

By 6 p.m. the foreign secretaries and the officials trooped, almost stormed in from the Grand Hotel across the road. A single sheet of paper was given to the chief of the Foreign Ministers, Mr. Kadirgamar with the remark 'this is a bare bones document'.

The significance of this is that it is this draft that act as the mandate for the Secretary General of SAARC to map out the future course of the grouping. In effect, therefore, the SAARC Secretariat would have had no real worth to do in the future.

A report which had reached comprehensive proportions in three days of substantial work in the Standing Committee had been shrunk, in a fit of pique by the Indian and Pakistan officials, to an inconsequential one page say nothing, do nothing report that brought the work of SAARC to a grinding halt. Mr. Kadirgamar took one look at it and remarked 'we will have to improve on this, it seems'.

Just then with three foreign ministers, foreign secretaries, the secretary general of SAARC and other officials around, a cheeky young miss from the Indian delegation had the temerity if not the inexperience to shoot back at the chief of the SAARC Foreign Ministers Council. "That's your prerogative," she said.

Prerogative it was for the Foreign Ministers to save SAARC from the foreign secretaries' stubbornness. One South Asian Minister said the Prime Minister of India and Pakistan may have gone in a bus to Lahore, their officials are still at the bus halt.

Mr. Kadirgamar, Mr. Singh and Mr. Aziz then sat down without anyone else and thrashed out appropriate references to the Lahore Declaration and the GEP recommendation, Mr. Kadirgamar doing the drafting on the back of an envelope.

The Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers seemed prepared to look beyond their officials. The original parts of the GEP report and the vision for SAARC since omitted from the Standing Committee draft were re-introduced. SAARC was salvaged from the brink of virtual collapse.

As one South Asian diplomat observed, 'firm chairmanship had converted a total collapse into a stunning success'.

At a final informal meeting of ministers and secretaries before the formal session, the chairman did not mince words. He said the Standing Committee report was a 'disgrace' which would have to be removed from the annals of SAARC. And so it was.

The officials were instructed to re-submit their original report together with the paragraphs drafted by the troika of ministers. The formal meeting was then convened and proceeded smoothly. Diplomats observed that for the first time in SAARC history the officials had taken a beating.

The next day at the concluding session, the Indian and Pakistani ministers with their officials by their side seemed to take a stronger line on minor drafting points such as the location in the Standing Committee's report of the new paragraphs, should they be at the front of the document, in the middle or at the end, 'as if their officials were breathing down their necks'.

The Bangladesh foreign minister wanted a reference to the Dhaka-Calcutta bus route and with promises to meet in New York everyone left Nuwara Eliya in one piece. SAARC had survived.

Criminal defamation

CPU reiterates demand

The Commonwealth Press Union has again urged the government to abolish criminal defamation laws in Sri Lanka.

The 54-nation CPU's Press Freedom Director, Lindsay Ross, reiterated the appeal when she met Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera at the Parliamentary Complex after she took part in the deliberations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Media Law reforms.

Ms. Ross pointed out to the minister that the law of criminal defamation had been abandoned in many countries and the British Law Commission had recommended that the law be repealed in Britain.

The Minister told Ms. Ross he was preparing draft reforms to media laws and would present them to the select committee soon.

Ms. Ross also met members of The Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka and discussed among other matters last Sunday's abduction of Lakbima journalist Sri Lal Priyantha.

Wayamba probe non-starter

The two-member committee appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to probe the allegedly large-scale fraud and violence at Wayamba elections has still not begun sittings, though one month of its two month deadline has already passed.

The committee was appointed on February 20 amidst an unprecedented national outcry over widespread violence and malpractices at the Wayamba provincial elections.

While several parties demanded that the whole election be cancelled. President Kumaratunga assured she would act after the committee comprising two former judges probed the incidents and submitted a report within two months.

The Sunday Times learns that the delay in launching the probe by the committee is linked to election petitions filed in the Court of Appeal and possible legal problems from parallel inquiries.

Former Supreme Court Judge Ananda Coomaraswamy and former Appeal Court judge N. Abeyweera are the members of the committee.

Follow-up action for the committee to begin sittings has to be taken by the Presidential Secretariat but not much has been done in that regard, The Sunday Times learns.

One possible venue for the sittings is the BMICH but the members of the committee have not yet been told of where or when they could begin sittings.

Shooting bodies to probe

By Frederica Jansz

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Sports Shooting Association (SSA) are promised tough action against any members who have found to have been involved in unethical or questionable activities.

The two associations were responding to last week's special assignment disclosures in The Sunday Times, relating to alleged misconduct and questionable activities.

The NRA President Admiral A.H.M. Razeek said they had met on Monday and appointed a top level committee to probe the allegations. SSA President General Dennis Perera said they also would meet soon to look into the charges.

At the centre of the controversy is Sarath de Zoysa, national coach for practical pistol shooting, a council member of the NRA and general secretary of the SSA.

The Sunday Times report last week disclosed how sharp-shooting had allegedly become a front for a highly influential group to indulge in illegal arms trade and other questionable activities.

It is alleged that some of our sharp-shooters had Filipino call girls pose with the very weapons that were used in the international shooting competition. Admiral Razeek said the association would probe the alleged misbehaviour of individuals but other matters did not come within the purview of the controlling body.

Mr. de Zoysa has meanwhile stepped down as national coach for practical pistol shooting. The Bambalapitiya police are continuing investigations after they allegedly seized a haul of weapons from Mr. de Zoysa's residence in December last year.

The police have handed over a file to the Attorney General while the Mount Lavinia magistrate's court will hear this case on Wednesday.

No reply to Ranil's plea

Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has asked for more security during the ongoing election campaign but police have not responded, party sources said yesterday.

They said the request had been made more than three weeks ago to the Police Chief seeking more personnel and vehicles for Mr. Wickremesinghe's security unit. But no positive response had been received so far, except to say the matter had been referred to the Defence Ministry.

At present, the Opposition leader has a security unit comprising 30 officers.

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