When Kashmir held centre stage

A year since these developments took place is an opportune time to reflect on how the first and only meeting of the UNSC exclusively on Kashmir took place in over 53 years. This will offer an insight into big power dynamics at the multilateral level and also help to draw lessons from a key meeting in Kashmir’s diplomatic history.

India’s actions in occupied Kashmir had created a dangerous situation in violation of UNSC resolutions, obliging Pakistan to take the issue to the world’s highest diplomatic forum — the Security Council. It was an arduous path to a meeting, which should have been called without a hitch, as Kashmir remains among the oldest items on the UNSC agenda. What made it especially challenging was that Pakistan was not a member of the Council.

Then there was the challenge posed by what for over 72 years has prevented implementation of UNSC resolutions on Kashmir: big power interests reflected in the positions of the Council’s five permanent members (P5). For example, after India reneged on its pledge to hold a plebiscite, the Soviet Union acted as the prime protector of India’s interests on Kashmir, even exercising the veto. Over time, other P5 members acted similarly at different points.

A setback for India, the Security Council meeting reaffirmed the Kashmir dispute’s international status.

The P5 were therefore the key to ensuring that the UNSC discussed the issue after the Indian action. As Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN at the time, I faced one of the most challenging moments of my diplomatic career, as did the Pakistan Mission team. On receiving instructions from the government that a meeting must be called our first consultations were with the Chinese Mission. As a permanent member, it was China who would make the request to the Council president and weigh in with other members.

It was clear that Pakistan and China had to work in close tandem to overcome the opposition India would mount. A frenetic round of meetings followed in New York while our foreign minister dashed to Beijing and spoke to counterparts from all Security Council members. The foreign ministry too repeatedly reached out to UNSC member states. During these crucial days, Prime Minister Imran Khan kept in close touch with me to track progress and make suggestions.

What proved extremely helpful was the stand the secretary general had taken earlier. Hours after India’s Aug 5 action, I approached his office to stress the need for a public statement to underline the criticality of addressing the situation. Guterres was away, but I met his chief of staff on Aug 7 to convey the urgency for a swift public position and linked this to his ‘Conflict Prevention’ agenda. The secretary general’s statement came on Aug 9. He said the UN position on the decades-old dispute was governed by the UN Charter and “applicable Security Council resolutions”.

This timely reiteration helped to frame the issue for UNSC members and persuade some of them of the need for a meeting. As Islamabad launched vigorous efforts in their capitals, I met repeatedly with representatives of all 15 Council members. Meetings followed with the UN’s department of political affairs. We agreed with China that the proposed meeting start with briefings from DPA and Department for Peace Operations on the political and human rights situation and the volatile conditions along the Line of Control.

US consent was crucial. Its position would also swing its friends on the Council. This was secured after much diplomatic effort in Islamabad and New York. Russian support was equally critical and, fortunately, they responded positively. The UK wasn’t hard to convince and conveyed its support on the eve of the meeting. The only opposition to the meeting, which China persuaded us would be a closed one to garner maximum support, came from France. Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to Paris and a defence deal likely lay behind this. Among non-permanent members the most helpful was Kuwait. Indonesia came around once it saw consensus emerge for the meeting.

New Delhi went into overdrive to stop the meeting, with top officials frantically lobbying the capitals of UNSC members. The arguments deployed by Indian diplomats in New York were familiar — and disingenuous. Its Aug 5 action was to ‘promote Kashmir’s economic development’ by ‘integrating’ it with India; it was an internal, ‘administrative’ matter; UNSC resolutions were old and irrelevant. These arguments were easily refuted as they flew in the face of facts. UNSC resolutions remained alive, I argued, as law had no expiry date. A brutal lockdown was hardly a ‘development vehicle’. Kashmir remained an internationally recognised dispute.

India’s efforts failed. The meeting convened on Aug 16, within 72 hours of Pakistan’s request, despite last-ditch efforts by an isolated France to block it. In two hours of consultations, Council members voiced concern over violations of human rights, urged an end to the lockdown and called for peaceful resolution of the dispute based on UNSC resolutions and the Charter. The UK called for an inquiry into rights abuses while the Russian representative referred to UNSC resolutions in his public remarks.

Although consultations are informal meetings of the UNSC, this was a landmark development because it (i) nullified India’s claim that Kashmir was an internal matter and confirmed the international status of the dispute, (ii) reaffirmed that UNSC resolutions on Indian-occupied Kashmir remain alive and central to resolution of the dispute, and (iii) the Council’s consensus for a peaceful settlement endorsed Pakistan’s position that the dispute be resolved by negotiations, not unilateral coercive means.

This marked Pakistan’s first diplomatic response to India’s illegal actions and was intended to be built upon by further steps. A year on, Islamabad is expected to step up international efforts after a lull in its diplomatic campaign imposed by the pandemic.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020