India’s objection to a Pakistani secretary general may hurt SAARC

ISLAMABAD, Feb. 1 : The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), beleaguered by internal rifts, is headed for more difficult days ahead as India is attempting to block on ‘procedural grounds’ the appointment of a Pakistani diplomat as the next secretary general of the regional body.

The Saarc secretariat can, therefore, potentially remain a headless body for a long time if the stalemate prolongs and the dispute is not resolved soon. The Pakistani turn, which is held by rotation, starts from March 1, 2017 and continues till Feb 28, 2020.

This is the first time in Saarc’s troubled history that it is moving towards a standoff over the secretary general’s appointment.

Editorial: Undermining Saarc

Amjad Hussain Sial, a career diplomat, had been nominated by Pakistan as the 13th secretary general of Saarc to replace the outgoing top official of Kathmandu-based Saarc secretariat Arjun Bahadur Thapa, whose tenure expires on Feb 28. Mr Sial’s nomination was made at the Saarc Council of Ministers in Pokhara (Nepal) in March 2016 and was endorsed by all member states.

New Delhi, however, through a diplomatic note last month asked the secretariat to adhere to the “due working procedures” in the appointment of Mr Thapa’s successor.

In this regard it pointed towards Article V of the MoU on the establishment of the Saarc secretariat, which details the procedure for the appointment of the secretary general and under which the appointment has to be approved by the Saarc Council of Ministers comprising foreign ministers of the member states.

The Indian position is that the nomination had to be ratified by the Council of Ministers meeting in Islamabad, which could not happen due to postponement of the summit after India and several of its regional allies pulled out of the meeting.

Pakistani officials, meanwhile, accuse India of employing “delaying tactics”. They insist that concurrence had been received from all members, including India. A copy of an Indian diplomatic note dated May 30, 2016 conveying its concurrence to Mr Sial’s appointment as secretary general was also shared with Dawn. New Delhi, the officials say, is now unnecessarily raising issues over the appointment.

Receipt of concurrence to Mr Sial’s appointment from all eight member states was notified by the Saarc secretariat on Sept 8, 2016.

Relations between Islamabad and New Delhi nosedived last year due to the aggravating situation in India-held Kashmir. India later accused a Pakistan-based group of attacking one of its military camps in Uri and also withdrew from the summit being hosted by Pakistan in November on the pretext of “cross-border terrorist attacks”.

The regional organisation has long been held hostage to the intense Pak-India rivalry although its charter explicitly disallows bringing regional disputes to the forum.

Indian leadership does not unequivocally say it, but a sub-regional transport agreement and statements by Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicate that India is working towards a regional bloc minus Pakistan. Furthermore, by isolating Pakistan, India is trying to gain maximum leverage and influence in the region.

Pakistan, besides its large territorial size, has been an active member of Saarc and is currently contributing 24 per cent of the secretariat’s budget.

Adviser to the PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz in his meeting with outgoing Saarc Secretary General Thapa last week said India impeded the Saarc process and violated the spirit of the Saarc Charter.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2017

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