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Transcript of media briefing by Foreign Secretary on Vice-President’s visit to Perth for CHOGM

October 25, 2011

Official Spokesperson (Shri Vishnu Prakash): A very good evening to all of you and sorry to keep you waiting.

You know that Hon. Vice-President of India would be leaving for Perth to head the Indian Delegation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit, on the 27th morning. Foreign Secretary would like to brief you about the visit of the Vice-President for the CHOGM Summit. We also have with us Mr. P. Harish, to the right of Foreign Secretary, who is the Joint Secretary in the Vice-President's Secretariat.

I would like to invite the Foreign Secretary to make his opening statement.

Foreign Secretary (Shri Ranjan Mathai): Thank you.

The 54-nation Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit Meeting, or CHOGM, will be held at Perth in Australia from October 28 to 30, 2011. It will be preceded by the Pre-CHOGM Foreign Ministers Meeting on October 26 and 27, 2011.

Hon'ble Vice-President of India will be leading the official Indian delegation to the Summit. The External Affairs Meeting will be heading the Indian delegation to the Pre-CHOGM Foreign Ministers meeting. The Delegation includes the Foreign Secretary, the Additional Secretary for International Organisations Mr. Dilip Sinha, other senior officials and members of the media. There will be an Indian business delegation at Perth which is headed by the CII President Designate Mr. Adi Godrej. The Vice President proposes to leave New Delhi on 27th and return on the 31st.

CHOGMs have a format of: (a) Executive Sessions, where Heads of Government interact in a more formal manner and they make statements, and are accompanied by Ministers or officials, and (b) a Retreat, where the Heads of Government interact informally with their counterparts without the presence of any aides. This element of CHOGM is what makes it a unique forum for interaction among the leaders of 54 member countries.

The theme of CHOGM this year, chosen by Australia, is 'Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience'. Australia has circulated a Concept Paper on the theme which focuses on strengthening the Commonwealth, to enable it to more effectively assist member nations in dealing with current challenges as individual states, as members of the Commonwealth, and as members of the global community. The paper focuses on issues related to economic and social development, food and energy security, and the adverse effects of climate change. Efforts are also underway to enhance the Commonwealth's role in international fora, particularly the G20 process, the 17th Conference of Parties (COP-17), and the Rio+20 meeting on sustainable development scheduled in Brazil next year.

In addition, the Heads of Government are expected to review developments within the Commonwealth and globally. They will discuss a whole gamut of issues of relevance to the Commonwealth ranging from the promotion and protection of fundamental political values in the Commonwealth, the global economic situation, international trade, the Commonwealth's engagement with the G20, climate change and sustainable development, and initiatives to deal with the concerns of the youth and women. A discussion on small states, which is particularly important here because 32 of the 54 Commonwealth countries are actually small states, will be held especially in the context of their vulnerability to economic volatilities.

In terms of the Outcome Documents, the Heads of Government are expected to issue a joint communiqué spelling out the position of the Commonwealth on major issues including these international issues that are of importance to the Association. A stand-alone Declaration on Food Security Principles is also expected to be negotiated and adopted.

A number of Commonwealth-affiliated organizations such as Business, Youth and People's Forums will also be meeting during this period in Perth. Reports on their activities will be presented to Foreign Ministers at their meeting.

The Commonwealth Business Forum, to which I alluded earlier, would meet from the 25th to the 27th and as I said Mr. Adi Godrej would be leading the Indian Business Delegation.

As an international organization the Commonwealth has innate strengths and considerable expertise in areas pertaining to economic, social, environmental and governance issues. It has emerged as a ‘one-stop shop' for many of its members to easily access a variety of assistance and support in these areas such as technical advice, financial support, consultancy, feasibility reports, managerial training and skill development. The Commonwealth is also doing important work in the areas of gender equality, education and youth. The Commonwealth has been a pillar of support for many of the geographically smaller developing countries, whom I referred to earlier, particularly in facing the challenges arising out of the global economic and financial crisis.

India is the largest member of the Commonwealth and has nearly 60 per cent of its total population. A number of Commonwealth countries also have sizeable numbers of Persons of Indian Origin in their population. India is presently the fourth largest contributor to the Commonwealth's assessed budgets and the fifth largest contributor to the voluntary Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), which is used for providing technical assistance and capacity-building to its developing member states. India has consistently, constructively and significantly contributed to various Commonwealth activities and has stepped up its engagement with the organization in recent times. We have also increased our contribution to CFTC to over one million pounds since 2009-10.

During the last CHOGM in 2009 in Port of Spain, the Hon'ble Prime Minister had announced several initiatives to support Commonwealth activities, including enhanced training slots, contributions to the Media Development Fund and the Commonwealth Partnership Platform Portal, and support for the new Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva. All these commitments have been fulfilled and they demonstrate India's continuing commitment to the Commonwealth.

As you are aware, Mr. Kamalesh Sharma is presently the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. During his tenure, the Commonwealth has noticeably scaled up activities, particularly in its support to Small States and the efforts to influence the international debate on global economic governance. Shri Sharma's re-election for a second term would also be considered by leaders at the CHOGM in Perth.

Thank you.

Question: How relevant is the Commonwealth today? And is it because it is not that important that the PM has not found the time for it?

Foreign Secretary: I think the Commonwealth retains its relevance. As you are aware, it has evolved considerably since 1949 when it came into existence. The fact that it has been, as I described it, a particularly useful grouping for assistance particularly of a technical and economic nature has been actually appreciated globally. Just to mention an example, there have been in the last few years countries which are otherwise not associated with Britain have chosen to join it. The Commonwealth when it started became a voluntary association of States which had this special connection with Britain. But even other developing countries which have no such connection have chosen to join it. To give you examples, Mozambique joined the Commonwealth in 1995, Cameroon followed a few months later, and Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009.

India has, we believe, a natural partnership with the organisation. It is after all a community of English speaking nations all of whom have a common law system. The focus on South-South cooperation through the Commonwealth has been very effectively managed and used. It also deals with values of democracy, good governance, and others. But I would say in particular the ability of the Commonwealth to provide a direct interaction and a forum for cooperation and technical assistance to many of the small States, as I said 32 out of 54, particularly in small States from the Pacific islands and the Caribbean, political dialogue in an informal setting, economic cooperation and technical cooperation, this provides us a very natural platform.

As to the Prime Minister attending, as you are aware the Prime Minister has had a very heavy schedule of meetings just now and he has a couple of very heavy international commitments going forward in the next few weeks. It is in this context that the hon'ble Vice-President, and we were extremely appreciative of that, kindly agreed to lead the Indian delegation to CHOGM.

Question: Sir, what are our expectations so far as terrorism is concerned because it is a global issue? Is the Summit going to discuss how to tackle it? Secondly, can the Commonwealth really provide some answer to the present financial crisis facing the West and the US?

Foreign Secretary: Terrorism would obviously come up in the retreat and the political level discussions. But it would come up in the context of global cooperation against terrorism and in a very general form. I do not really expect a very focused, specific attention on terrorism .

But as to the global financial system, the Commonwealth has the very special advantage of having in it countries which are in the G20 both from the industrialised world and from the developing world, and some other countries who are being marginalised because of the global financial crisis. So, it has an ability to bring together very differing viewpoints in a very informal setting as well as in the formal communiqué and to try and combine the interests, concerns and perceptions of all these three categories of countries. So, I think it would provide a forum for a very useful debate.

Question: There has been a push in Australia and also from the Canadian Prime Minister to have the Sri Lankan proposed hosting of CHOGM in 2013 postponed until there has been some, I think it has been said, progress on human rights and accountability there over the war and some allegations of war crimes. What is India's position on that? Secondly, with regard to the Eminent Persons Group Report that is likely to be submitted during CHOGM, there are some suggestions that India does not support the creation of a Human Rights and Rule of Law Monitor. Can you speak about that and explain what India's objections are?

Foreign Secretary: First of all on Sri Lanka, the decision was taken in 2009 for the next two CHOGM Summits. I think that matter has been decided already and it is not a subject which needs to be reopened.

As far as the Eminent Persons Group is concerned, we have seen the report and we had a discussion on it in New York. The Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth met. I was present at that meeting. The report is very voluminous. It has got 106 recommendations covering the entire range of activities of the Commonwealth. The report itself was prepared over a period of one year with five meetings between July 2010 and July 2011. Since that time the member governments have had only a few weeks to actually look at it and in fact to start a discussion on it. I would not like to comment on each of the recommendations. Even these 106 have been classed into 14 core recommendations and the others. There are a number of areas where we think there is need for a more careful view.

Certainly the proposal for the Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights is one on which we have some reservations. The responsibilities spelt out in this would seem to undermine the role of both the Secretary-General and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group itself which is actually dealing with precisely those issues. Secondly, it seems to us that this particular proposal is like a duplication of what the UN is already doing through its Rapporteurs. And at a time when the organisation is facing budgetary difficulties whether it should really go that direction, is not quite clear. In fact, I raised the specific issue as to where the money was going to come from, and it was mentioned that it might involve reallocation of some of the resources of the Secretariat as of now. And when you consider that the current allocation and budget of the Commonwealth secretariat has been decided after considerable discussion and approval by the Heads, reallocation at this stage does not seem appropriate. It seems to us that the real focus of the Commonwealth should be once again on the development challenges which are uppermost in the minds of the vast majority of the members. So, while we support the important values of democracy, rule of law and human rights, we believe the Commonwealth should focus on strengthening the existing institutions rather than trying to create new ones.

Question: Sir, for most of the issues that have been raised during the CHOGM Summit, it almost seems that countries like Australia and Canada are kind of focusing the issues on smaller countries and of course countries like India, be it polio, human rights, many things. So, what are some of the issues that India, given the fact that India represents the voice of most of the smaller countries, might raise asking from countries like Australia and Canada? Secondly, will the issue of exports of uranium be raised on the sidelines with Australia once again?

Foreign Secretary: Our focus is not specific to any one or two members. I will ask the Joint Secretary to the Vice-President to comment on polio because this has just come and he has just been advised about it. But considering the focus which we have always been giving, it is for the organisation as a whole and that it should retain its very unique ability to provide for the needs of the small States and small members assist in the process of development. I think that would be our main aim. As you can see, we have been gradually stepping up our own contributions to it through economic and technical cooperation. One of the initiatives we took a couple of years ago was to create a portal for improving e-learning and through such mechanisms we think there is an ability of the organisation as a whole to really respond to the felt needs of the smaller members of the Commonwealth. I think that is the direction we would specifically go.

As to what we would discuss, the Vice-President is having a couple of bilateral meetings. Those are still in the process of being finalised. All issues in our bilateral relations would be certainly discussed. I do not know if there would be any specific focus on uranium. That is more a subject which may come up from the Australians rather than from us. On polio would you like to add something?

Joint Secretary and OSD to Vice-President (Shri P. Harish): Yesterday was the World Polio Day and it was in this context that there have been Op Eds in most Australian newspapers authored by Bill Gates and the Prime Minister Gillard. I think there is also an Australian history to polio eradication. The call was given by a very eminent Australian citizen in this regard. So, I think as far as India is concerned, this is the first year where we have had only one incidence of polio and that too on the 13th of January this year in West Bengal, amounting to near polio eradication. However, I think the cause for vigilance has been highlighted by the Government of India. There have been incidents of outbreak of polio in the neighbourhood, in Pakistan and China and a few other countries. So, vigilance is continuing. I think the National Polio Eradication and Monitoring Campaign has in that sense achieved significant success.

Question: Sir, you spoke about climate change at CHOGM. As far as global warming is concerned, India and China and many African countries have a certain stand. It appears from reports that South Africa may be wavering and may be changing its position. If that is so, are we going to discuss this with South Africa or leave this out? The other issue, Sir, is slightly different. Senior Cabinet Minister Subodh Kant Sahai has just said that this US travel advisory is hurting and will continue to hurt travel to India as far as tourism is concerned. So, would you take this up with the Americans?

Foreign Secretary: On your first question, I am not aware that a specific bilateral has been scheduled with the South Africans. But certainly we have a number of fora during which we discuss matters with the South Africans and certainly we would be discussing with them before head into the COP-17.

On the travel advisories, we have noticed that these advisories have been issued by the US and some other countries. What we have been told is that these countries are obliged under their legal system to regularly advise their citizens on travel related issues to any foreign country. It is understood that these countries took on board some of the Indian media reports about the heightened security concerns and the precautions in India during the festive season and had accordingly brought this to the attention of their citizens. There have also been references to some of our own advisories from time to time which are not of the same nature. It is a combination of different sources of information based on which they make their assessment. We on our part have conveyed it certainly to the Americans, and we will do it with the others, that we feel that the language of these advisories was a little disproportionate in that the security situation in India is basically normal and tourists have nothing to fear. The Minister for Tourism in fact spoke to me about this and he highlighted the fact that Jammu and Kashmir this year has received a record number of tourists, the highest in 25 years. And of course we will be conveying this kind of information to our interlocutors, and we will continue to convey to them that whatever they wish to do under their own legal obligations should be proportionate and carefully modulated.

Question: I just wanted to get a sense of bilateral meetings Vice-President may have in Perth.

Foreign Secretary: They are still in the process of being finalised. But those which are scheduled are the Prime Minister of Australia, the Leader of Opposition also of Australia, and the President of Seychelles. These have so far been firmed up.

Question: My question is about the incident just two days earlier when an Indian chopper crossed over to Pakistan. There are reports that they have taken the GPS Coordinates of many helipads in India. What is your response to what Pakistan has done? Also, do you appeal to the forces on the border on the Indian side to be more sensitive in future? This time around they are back safe, but if it recurs they may be shot down.

Foreign Secretary: As to media report, I would not wish to comment on it. As of now it is just a report from the media and I would prefer not to comment on it. But in all our discussions we are actually working on what are called confidence-building measures and certainly the need for vigilance and care on both sides is a part of that. But I think this particular incident was simply a matter of straying. The fact that it has been resolved quickly and amicably is a matter of satisfaction.

Question: Foreign Secretary, what are the chances of a discussion on West Asia and North Africa, especially after Gaddafi's death? Will there also be any kind of discussion on whether there is a responsibility of the countries which have intervened in nation-building?

Foreign Secretary: I do not see any reference in the programme as it stands to engage and to discuss specifically Libya in the Commonwealth context because usually the Commonwealth deals only with issues involving its own members. But certainly when Heads of State and Government get together and review the global situation, it is inevitable that those countries which are directly affected, and we have some Commonwealth member States from Africa and from the Mediterranean who are very close by, obviously there would be a general discussion on it. Our position as you know is very clear. We are now engaged and we are in contact with the National Transitional Council. Our Charge d'affaires visited Tripoli and established contact with them. But the upsurge which has been taking place across the West Asia and North Africa is something of course we would discuss with others. Our basic point is that changes such as they are in these countries should be led by the populations of those countries by themselves. Any move towards democratisation is obviously welcome. But as we have said, for the outside world it is to be supportive but not to seek reordering of societies through military force. This is something we totally reject.

Question: Sir, you said India is one of the larger contributors to the Commonwealth. How much is it in numerical terms and how does it compare to the other major contributors like Australia and Canada?

Foreign Secretary: As I said, for the CFTC itself we contribute over a million pounds. There is a separate contribution we make for the running of the Commonwealth Secretariat. And there are also some individual programmes we run. For example, the ICCR handles the scholarship programme which is totally different. Our contribution to the Secretariat is about 640,000 pounds. To the Commonwealth Foundation, which does a lot of work with non-governmental organisations, it is 140,000 pounds. The Commonwealth also has joint offices in New York and Geneva the main aim of these being to provide office space and a venue for many small countries who would otherwise find it very difficult to manage office space in international organisations. To the one in New York it is about 100,000 dollars; and to the one in Geneva it is 80,000 dollars. There is a Commonwealth Media Development Fund. You would be happy to hear, we have given them 60,000 dollars as part of a 120,000 paid over two years. As I said, for the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation it is about 1.1 million pounds. The Commonwealth Partnership Platform Portal which, I referred to on the e-government and learning, it is again 100,000 pounds. For the Commonwealth Youth Programme, which is aimed at youth activities and sports, it is another 50,000 pounds. I do not have the contributions of the other members. But we will certainly get it for you.

Question: In Australia in the last few days there has been a bit of self reflection on the fact that the Prime Minister of India is not coming to CHOGM and whether that reflects the fact that as a neighbour we have failed to properly engage India and build the relationship that we consider very important for our future in Australia. What would you say to Australians who believe that perhaps we have failed as a nation to properly engage India? And secondly, it is an old chestnut I know, in your bilateral discussions to come with Prime Minister Julia Gillard will India be raising the issue of uranium exports to India?

Foreign Secretary: I think if there is any impression that the Prime Minister's participation reflects on our bilateral relations would be most unfortunate and not correct. As I said, the Prime Minister's engagements being what they are, his commitments were very heavy indeed. In our system the Vice-President holds a position of great importance. The Vice-President is in our Warrant of Precedence in fact second highest personality of our State. The Vice-President has vast experience in international affairs. He is eminently qualified to deal with issues on the global stage. We were honoured that he accepted to lead the Indian Delegation. So, I do not think it would be appropriate to draw any kind of conclusion apart from the fact that the Vice-President leading the Indian Delegation is the right decision.

As to the bilateral, as I said the subject has come up for discussions in the past. Our understanding is that Australia has to make up its own mind on what it will do with uranium. We would welcome a discussion when it does so.

Question: Sir, India has increased its contribution to the IMF also. This was cleared by the Cabinet today. Can you give us a little detail on this?

Foreign Secretary: I am afraid anything that deals with our contribution to IMF will be announced by the Finance Ministry when it is good and ready.

Question: Will the issue of migration be taken up in the Commonwealth Summit? Bangladesh feels that the process has to be more humane.

Foreign Secretary: It is one of the issues which will be discussed. Exactly in which format and which particular segment, that I do not have right now. But certainly yes, we have seen a reference to the Bangladeshi wish to have this item also as one of the items for discussion.

Question: Sir, side by side with CHOGM Australia is hosting a meeting of largely small developing states on the issue of climate change. Most of these states are members of the G77. There has been some concern that developing countries have been luring them to their point of view by offering financial aid. Will India be doing any sort of negotiation or influencing of these small states in light of Durban? Secondly regarding climate change, the Environment Ministry and the positions it is putting out seem to have given more of an emphasis on equity this year than there has been in the last few years in India's position, and that has not been taken too happily among developed countries. What is the External Affairs Ministry's position on that?

Foreign Secretary: It is a Government of India's position. In fact, equity has been the basis of our position all along. I cannot recall an occasion when equity was not among the highest priorities for the Indian negotiators. So, I do not think it would be appropriate to say that there has been any change in the situation there. As regards the Australian meeting with the small island developing states, I do not have too much information on that perhaps because we are not a small island developing state.

Question: Not small island developing states, small developing states.

Foreign Secretary: Small developing states. No. We continue our discussions with those countries in every available forum. We meet in G77 as you said. Commonwealth is an area where we will certainly be joining in the discussions. But I do not see a separate interaction on this occasion.

Question: Sir, on the issue of homosexuality decriminalisation, India is one of the countries which have recently done it. Will India be urging other countries as well to take steps within the Commonwealth?
Foreign Secretary: Not that I am aware of.
(Concluded)>

New Delhi
October 25, 2011

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