ISLAMABAD - Pakistan yesterday said the Economic Cooperation Organization member countries should exploit the resources to transform the ECO into a formidable economic bloc.

Addressing the meeting after assuming chairmanship of the 22nd Council of Ministers Meeting, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said intra-regional trade was far below the potential which needed immediate attention.

He advocated implementation of ECO trade agreement and removal of trade and non-trade barriers, besides establishment of a Free Trade Area in the region.

Aziz said that lack of regional connectivity was a major impediment to economic cooperation. “For movement of goods, there should be focus on corridor-based projects for greater connectivity,” he said.

He maintained there was a need to increase the membership, scope and activities of ECO Trade and Development Bank as well as ECO Re-Insurance Company. He proposed enhanced cooperation of public and private sectors of member states through ECO Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The foreign ministers’ meeting approved ‘Islamabad Declaration’ and the ECO Vision 2025. Islamabad Declaration 2017 contains the salient points of cooperation among the members of ECO in connectivity, trade, transport and energy fields.

The declaration will be adopted at the ECO summit today (March 1) to be attended by heads of state and government from the member countries.

Aziz said as one of the founding members of the ECO, Pakistan firmly believed that ECO has the potential to bring economic prosperity and progress to the region.

“For the ECO region that stretches from the Himalayas in the East to the West of Dardanelles and from the Arabian Sea in the South to Russian Urals and Siberia in the North, the concept of regional connectivity offers immense potential for progress, prosperity and development of its 450 million people,” he said.

Accordingly, he said, Pakistan was hosting the 22nd ECO Summit on the theme of ‘Connectivity for Prosperity.’

Aziz said as envisaged in the Draft ECO Vision 2025, “we need to collectively work towards realizing the three long-term sectoral priorities of ECO which include development of transport and communication infrastructure, facilitation of trade and investment and effective use of the region’s vast energy resources.”

He said the ECO had achieved substantial results in the past, “but we have a long way to go in realizing our shared vision of an integrated, inter-connected and prosperous region.”

Aziz said the long-term prospects of ECO depend on renewing the necessary political will of all member states and to find common ground in promoting effective regional cooperation and establishment of efficient and effective institutions that can transfer actual benefits to all member states.

“Global peace, stability and prosperity cannot be achieved in silos in the inter-connected world of today. Our region is faced with a number of challenges. Therefore, innovative approaches and concerted efforts would be required for the socio-economic and human development of our people,” he said.

ECO region, he said, due to its vast natural and human resources, had the potential to become a formidable economic bloc. “However, there were certain priority areas which need our immediate attention: First, the trade figures of ECO reflect a dismal picture of a region that is one of the least integrated in the world, operating far below its potential, as compared to regional blocs such as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).”

He said the implementation of ECO Trade Agreement or ECOTA was essential in order to remove the existing trade and non-trade barriers and establishment of a Free Trade Area in the ECO region.

“Although ECOTA entered into force in 2008, some member states still have reservations on some aspects which, I hope, we can address without delay,” he said.

Aziz said secondly lack of regional connectivity and integration of infrastructure was one of the major impediments. He said, for efficient movement of goods the member states need to focus on the corridor - based approach for greater connectivity between different corridors, where feasible.

“Finally, there is a need to focus attention on ECO’s specialised agencies which can complement the activities of our organizations and promote greater economic and cultural integration. In this regard, there is a need to increase the membership, scope and activities of ECO Trade and Development Bank,” he said.

“We have also made good progress in combating the scourge of terrorism. We are therefore confident of providing safe transit passage for smooth flow of trade activities without any barriers,” he elaborated.

The adviser said: “The ECO region can benefit from the CPEC and Gwadar Port as it would bring down the cost and time of transportation considerably.”

Speaking on the occasion, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif – the outgoing chairman of the Council of Ministers - said the member countries should invest more time and energy on implementation of ECO Vision 2025. 

Zarif said the ECO members want the ECO to focus on projects and programmes which bring about maximum economic benefits to members and the region as a whole. He said continued regional cooperation within the ECO framework would require enhanced institutional and operational capacities in the organisation.

The Iranian foreign minister expressed the confidence that the Vision 2025 and associated plans of action would broaden regional integration and cohesion.

Secretary General of ECO Halil Ibrahim, in his address, stressed the need for sustained efforts and exploring all possibilities to harness the full potential for development and prosperity.

After the foreign ministers’ meeting, Aziz said the summit will discuss the global and regional circumstances. “The ECO members will agree on cooperation. ECO has a long way to go,” he remarked.

Meanwhile, Foreign Office spokesperson Nafees Zakaria said all was set for 13th ECO summit to be held in Islamabad. He said Islamabad Declaration was expected to help peace, economic boost and regional connectivity.

About Afghanistan’s participation in the ECO summit, he said: “They are playing their due role. We all agree that development and prosperity will ensure peace in Afghanistan.”

A separate statement by the foreign ministry said the Council of Ministers of ECO deliberated the progress made since the last COM.

Secretary General ECO Halil Ibrahim Akca briefed the Council on the recent activities of the Secretariat and progress made in various fields, inter alia, trade and investment; transport and communications; agriculture and food security; energy and environment; and international relations.

The COM adopted the ECO Vision 2025 as recommended by the senior officials meeting. The vision document focuses on sectoral priorities of the Organization and serves as a roadmap/guideline for the medium-term success of the Organization. The Agenda for the 13th ECO Summit to be held on March 1 (today) was also finalised.

The COM recommended to the Summit adoption of the Islamabad Declaration 2017, the statement added.