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UN: Action Unlikely On India-Pakistan Dispute

  • Robert McMahon

With India and Pakistan possibly on the brink of their fourth war since 1947, international efforts to calm tensions are mainly in the hands of the world's major powers. The United Nations is remaining on the sidelines, partly due to a long-standing agreement by both countries to resolve their dispute over Kashmir bilaterally. Experts say there is little chance the UN secretary-general or Security Council will play a role, despite the wide-ranging consequences of a war between the two South Asian powers, which are both equipped with nuclear weapons.

United Nations, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The prospect of a war between India and Pakistan has generated worldwide concern, but the United Nations -- involved in the earliest days of their dispute -- is unlikely to play any part in making peace.

India is demanding that Pakistan act quickly to halt cross-border attacks by Islamic militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir. It has placed hundreds of thousands of troops on the border since an attack by militants on the Indian parliament in December. An attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir two weeks ago further aggravated tensions.

Pakistan denies arming or funding militants and says it has taken all adequate steps to stop infiltrations across the Line of Control, a cease-fire line established in a 1972 agreement.

The United Nations has a small observer force -- unrecognized by India -- that patrols a portion of the Line of Control. Pakistan's ambassador to the UN, Munir Akram, told reporters yesterday that expanding this force is one way of addressing India's charges.

"At present there are 35 observers. We have proposed that these should be substantially augmented in order to be able to effectively monitor the Line of Control and to see whether the Indian charges are right or not," Akram said.

Indian officials have rejected an observer force, saying the UN mission has proven ineffective. They say it is the responsibility of Pakistan to restrict the movement of militants beyond its borders.

Pakistan sent a letter last week to the president of the UN Security Council, urging it to play a role in resolving the Kashmir dispute. There has been no formal response from the council. Akram said that under the UN Charter, the council has a responsibility to address the dispute.

"Whenever there is a threat to international peace and security, there is an automatic obligation which arises for the Security Council to address that situation and that is an obligation which we believe the Security Council cannot in this context escape," Akram said.

At the moment, individual permanent members of the council have been seeking to calm tensions. Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, met with Pakistani and Indian officials this week. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been in telephone contact with both sides and his deputy, Richard Armitage, is heading to the region next week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to mediate talks between Indian leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf during an Asian summit in Kazakhstan next week. Pakistan has accepted but India is refusing negotiations until Pakistan signals it is serious about stopping cross-border terrorist attacks.

The involvement of major powers is far more likely to yield results than UN Security Council engagement, says David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy and a former Canadian diplomat.

"If the two sides actually want to settle this thing more or less amicably and they are looking for a face-saving device [beefing up the UN observation mission or something of that sort], I'm sure the UN would comply, the Security Council would comply. But until these two powerful parties come to their senses, there's not much point in the United Nations trying to do anything," Malone said.

Malone said the relatively recent attention of the United States to the long-standing Kashmir dispute could be crucial to easing tensions. But he said Washington must maintain an active role in solving the dispute.

Pakistan's key role in helping to stabilize Afghanistan and pursue Al-Qaeda fighters will likely ensure U.S. attention for the foreseeable future, Malone said. He added that escalating tensions in Kashmir, along with the Middle East, are the two disputes with the potential to seriously undermine the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

The territory of Kashmir acceded to Indian rule in 1947 but its accession was disputed by Pakistan and fighting broke out later that year. India filed a complaint with the UN Security Council in 1948 about what it termed Pakistani aggression.

The council established a commission to investigate and mediate the dispute and an agreement in 1949 by India and Pakistan established a cease-fire line to be supervised by UN observers. The council also passed resolutions calling for a plebiscite to be held (as already agreed to by both states) to determine the future allegiance of Kashmir. India distanced itself from the issue throughout the 1950s.

At the end of a later war in 1972, India and Pakistan signed an agreement in the Indian town of Simla, defining the Line of Control, which was roughly similar to the cease-fire line established in the 1949 agreement.

India considered the UN observer mandate to be lapsed, saying it related only to the earlier agreement, but Pakistan supported the continuation of the mission. The UN secretary-general's position has been that the UN force could be ended only by a Security Council decision.

That 1972 agreement also allowed India to distance itself from UN involvement in the Kashmir dispute, noted Dennis Kux, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington and a former State Department specialist on South Asia.

"When the two sides -- after the Bangladesh war -- when the two got together at Simla and signed an agreement, they did agree that they would deal with issues, including Kashmir, bilaterally, and that was seen by the Indians as a big victory. So they've consistently not been interested in having the UN [involved]. That's sort of an article of faith for the Indians," Kux said.

Kux told RFE/RL that if tensions subside, India still hopes to hold local elections in Kashmir and permit some greater autonomy. But that effort was made more difficult by the assassination this month of a moderate Muslim separatist leader. Kux said this has made it harder for Indian leaders to find local partners in Kashmir they can negotiate with.

"Their game plan -- and they don't make any secret about it -- is once the insurgency stops, they'll have a political opening, they'll offer them much greater autonomy, but they haven't really gone beyond that and it's hard to see an Indian government giving up Indian territory," Kux said.

Previous fighting between India and Pakistan has left about two-thirds of the territory under the control of India, including Ladakh, Jammu and the valley of Kashmir. The other one-third is under the control of Pakistan, including "Azad" ("free") Kashmir and the Northern Areas.

India wants control of the whole of Kashmir. Pakistan wants the mainly Muslim Kashmiris to decide in a plebiscite whether to join Pakistan or India. Some militant groups want to reunite Kashmir as an independent state, which is rejected by both India and Pakistan.

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