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War of words at UN is not the answer

Updated September 25, 2017

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An unnecessary and excessive attack by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj against Pakistan at the UN General Assembly has drawn strong criticism from Pakistan. Ms Swaraj’s bizarre taunt and allegation marked a rhetorical escalation in India’s seemingly renewed quest to try and put pressure on Pakistan regionally and globally.

Almost certainly, the escalation is linked to US President Donald Trump’s so-called South Asia strategy, which casts Pakistan as a spoiler of regional peace and improbably suggests that a greater role for India in Afghanistan may help stabilise that country. The Indian foreign minister’s Trumpian rhetoric indicates that India is in no mood to engage in dialogue with Pakistan and will continue to try and deflect the world’s attention from the oppression of the Kashmiri people in India-held Kashmir.

Nevertheless, Ms Swaraj’s diatribe could have been met by a more measured response than the one given by Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Maleeha Lodhi, especially considering the thoughtful and principled position that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi took on India and the Kashmir dispute during his own speech at the UNGA earlier.

While technically, the right of response was in the UN, perhaps a more appropriate reply could have come from the Foreign Office or foreign minister. The role of the UN permanent representative is to determinedly keep the attention of the UN and the world on the issues that Pakistan wants to highlight.

A sober and categorical response to Ms Swaraj’s speech would have kept the focus on India’s atrocities in IHK and the need for the world to do more to help the suffering of the Kashmiri people. Instead, an opportunity has been lost and the outside world will likely see the squabbling as yet another instance of how Pakistan and India prefer to trade insults rather than address common problems.

Indeed, for Pakistan, foreign policy and national security challenges are multiplying. If not handled carefully, an economic downturn could combine with a foreign policy crisis, leaving Pakistan acutely vulnerable to US-led international pressure.

Perhaps the greatest disservice to the oppressed people of IHK is for Pakistan to try and highlight their plight without improving its own credibility in matters of militancy in the eyes of the global community. It is far too easy for the outside world to disregard Pakistan’s principled and rightful objections to India’s approach to IHK and the overall Kashmir dispute because Pakistan is widely perceived to be unacceptably tolerant of certain kinds of non-state actors.

The stealthy mainstreaming of banned groups is the latest example of misguided policy. A war of words with India may please nationalist sentiment, but it may also cause further damage to Pakistan’s legitimate interests.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2017