Protecting Bilateral Interests versus Attaining Multilateral Objectives: A Foreign Policy Dilemma for Pakistan

By Syed Sharfuddin

Pakistan’s Kashmir dispute with India places Pakistan’s foreign policy in a tight corner because at every international forum its diplomats and leaders are expected by the people of Pakistan to reaffirm Pakistan’s principled position on Kashmir and highlight Jammu and Kashmir as an internationally recognised unresolved dispute between India and Pakistan. This has been a bane for India because its diplomats are under instructions from New Delhi to defend Pakistan questioning their illegal actions in Kashmir at the UN and international meetings and drag them to defend their persistent and ever escalating violation of the human rights of the Kashmiri people. This they avoid by levelling counter allegations against Pakistan for sponsoring cross border terrorism inside India. India has pursued this policy for over two decades.

In recent years, Indian tactics have changed to prevent Pakistan from inviting the international community’s attention on Kashmir. Under Prime Minister Modi’s rule, they have also learnt to become diplomatically aggressive. They fire the first salvo of accusations against Pakistan for state sponsored terrorism without waiting for Pakistan to raise the Kashmir dispute at these meetings. UN meetings are an example of how this debate has taken a different turn in recent years where Pakistani diplomats have struggled to divide their allocated speaking slots between defending this bizarre accusation and exposing India’s illegal annexation of occupied Kashmir and their military’s criminal violation of the human rights of Kashmiris.

In other multilateral meetings outside the UN, this debate proves costly to both India and Pakistan because it does not interest the delegates from other member countries into listening to the known positions of the two countries. It sours the atmosphere where more important matters of interest and concern are up for discussion and recommendations are advanced by delegates from third countries for obtaining multilateral consensus in pursuit of the objective of their forum. In such a situation, Pakistani diplomats have sometimes remained focused on the agenda of the meeting and did not raise the Kashmir issue as they do in Commonwealth meetings, or they maintain a balance between going along with the agenda of the meeting and yet finding space at their Plenary Statements or in the margins of the meeting to talk about Kashmir. Even then, they must be sensitive to the reservations of the host countries about members not using their territory to talk about their bilateral disputes with other member countries.

In the past, when the host of such multilateral meetings was Pakistan, of which India is also a member, India ducked these meetings and did not attend. Many SAARC meetings were postponed because India did not want to send its leaders to Islamabad to listen to a lecture on Kashmir. Even when Pakistan showed generosity and sent its delegation to attend an international meeting hosted by India, its representatives had to either keep quiet on the Kashmir dispute, or when they did talk about it, they either annoyed delegates from other countries who had gathered to discuss the specific agenda of the regional or thematic meeting or were caught in defending themselves against India’s accusation of Pakistan’s involvement in cross border terrorism.

In future when a multilateral meeting is hosted by India, a prudent approach for the Foreign Office would be not to get too excited about its political or administrative head going to Goa with his swimming trunks for pool diplomacy, or cricket diplomacy as some would still argue Pakistan should reinvent to normalise relations with India, but instead show the country’s flag through low level diplomatic representation making it very clear that until the Kashmir dispute is resolved peacefully through negotiations and international arbitration, India will continue to be boycotted by senior Pakistani leadership when its hosts a multilateral meeting. There is no loss to Pakistan in following this position because bilateral positions never make entry in the final communique or the official documents of an international meeting outside the UN ambit. On the contrary they bore other delegates who are mostly professionals and know the public positions of these countries. They also know that these statements are not for the meeting secretariat but for their home audience. Furthermore, India would never reciprocate by attending a high level meeting in Pakistan, unless it is given close assurance that Kashmir dispute will not be raised by Pakistan at the meeting. Given the popular sentiment of the people of Pakistan on Kashmir, no political leader, no matter how India-friendly he is, could afford to give this undertaking at the expense of ending his political career.





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