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A 'neutral mediator'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezDecember 10, 2014

UN Chief Ban Ki-moon has offered to engage with India and Pakistan in resolving the Kashmir dispute. Analyst Michael Kugelman talks to DW about how the UN could help ease tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

UN Vollversammlung 24.09.2014 - Ban Ki-moon
Image: Reuters/M. Segar

"As I have stated in the past, if both countries request it, I am ready to engage further to assist in resolving this issue," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in an interview with Indian news agency PTI published on December 9. Emphasizing that peace in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir can be achieved only through dialogue, the UN chief also called on both sides to resume talks, arguing that an agreement would serve the interests of the region at large.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Muslim-majority Kashmir, which they both claim in full, but rule in part. Tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors recently escalated over cross-border firing in the region in August and October this year.

Both sides, which often accuse each other of violating a cease-fire agreement, reported that dozens of people, including civilians, were killed as a result of the shelling. Back in August, India canceled talks between the foreign secretaries of the two South Asian countries after Pakistan's envoy in New Delhi held talks with Kashmiri separatists just before the negotiations.

Michael Kugelman
Kugelman: 'The UN could play the role of a truly neutral mediator'Image: C. David Owen Hawxhurst / WWICS

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that any UN involvement to resolve the dispute would need to take place behind-the-scenes. The efforts should focus first on getting the two sides to the table, and then urging them to talk, he adds.

DW: What role has the UN played in the Kashmir dispute over the past decades?

Its role has been very limited in recent decades. The UN was most active in the Kashmir dispute in the very first months of India's and Pakistan's existence, when the two countries were at war. The UN Security Council passed resolutions calling for a cease-fire, a withdrawal of security forces, and an internationally supervised plebiscite for Kashmiris to decide whether they join India or Pakistan.

The cease-fire resolution was implemented, but the other two were not. Ever since, the UN has not done very much at all on the Kashmir issue, other than at times urging the two sides to come to the negotiating table. It made a particularly big pitch for this in 1998, after both countries staged nuclear weapons tests.

Given that both sides seem unwilling to compromise, what role could the UN Secretary General play in resolving the issue?

The UN could play the role of a truly neutral mediator. This is a role that the US has sometimes sought to play, but with little success - particularly because there is mistrust in its relationship with both Islamabad and New Delhi. There really is no country that could be taken seriously as a credible mediator, given that few countries have deep, trusted relationships with both India and Pakistan.

Indien Pakistan Kaschmir Region Konflikt
The border clashes between India and Pakistan 'have grown alarmingly more intense,' says KugelmanImage: Reuters/F.Mahmood

The UK, which has sought to maintain good ties with both capitals, is one possible exception. But it's unlikely the UK would be interested in this role, given its own history in the region.

It is essential, however, that this role, at least initially, be one of a quiet mediator. Any UN involvement would need to be behind-the-scenes, focused on getting the two sides to the table, and once they are at the table gently urging them to talk. Of course, whether Pakistan and especially India have any interest whatsoever in talking to each other about Kashmir is a whole other story.

Why would Ban Ki-moon select precisely this moment to express his readiness to engage in the conflict?

It's because the border clashes have grown alarmingly more intense. There is frequently small arms fire along the Line of Control, and cross border firing is the norm. But in the last few weeks, there has been more firepower, and - most significantly from the point of view of the UN - it has started to affect civilians more than what typically is the case. These exchanges of fire generally occur in less populated border areas, but these latest incidents have actually spread to villages and caused civilian casualties.

The rising intensity of the border clashes is linked to another issue that explains why Ban has indicated his potential interest in engaging: The political relationship between India and Pakistan has, after a few years of relative calm, become dangerously toxic once again.

In Pakistan, the civilian government has been weakened by an anti-government movement and has in turn strengthened the military, which is more anti-India than is the government. The military, in fact, is now likely in control of policy on India. And the recent border provocations, we can assume, come from an emboldened Pakistani military.

Meanwhile, in India, you have a new nationalist government that has repeatedly stated that it won't back down from Pakistani provocations. So in essence you have a Pakistani military itching for a fight on the border, and an Indian military with carte blanche from civilian leaders in New Delhi to return fire with great intensity. This is a recipe for big problems. And we can assume that Ban is well aware of this.

Given the volatility of the region, why hasn't the UN engaged more actively over the past years?

Actually, Kashmir has been relatively calm in recent years. The border incidents have continued, but until recent months the situation was relatively quiet. One can attribute this to various factors - from better relations between Pakistan and India to the likelihood that Pakistan was using its influence over its "strategic assets" to discourage non-state militant actors from stirring up trouble on the border.

This relative calm likely diverted the UN's attention to other things, of which there have been many over the last few years. The UN has had a particularly heavy plate of foreign affairs issues - Iran's nuclear program, North Korea's nuclear program, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, natural catastrophes and other humanitarian disasters - and Kashmir simply didn't make it to the front burner.

Infografik umstrittene Gebiete in der Krisenregion Kaschmir Englisch
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Muslim-majority Kashmir

How do you think the Indian and Pakistani governments will respond to this offer by the UN chief?

Pakistan has long sought UN intervention, so it will likely at least be supportive of the idea. India is a different story. In its view, the Kashmir situation has been settled, and therefore any effort by Pakistan to bring attention to it - as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, likely instructed by the Pakistani military, did in his recent speech to the UN in New York - is to be opposed.

The same reasoning guides India's sensitivities about an external actor - including the UN - trying to restart talks. I imagine India would need quite some dream incentives to get it talking about Kashmir. After all, it has repeatedly stated that it does not wish to "internationalize" the Kashmir problem.

What more could the UN do to bring both sides to the negotiating table?

Pakistan is much more likely to be convinced than is India, but Pakistan would still be reluctant. What would make Pakistan hesitant to talk is something the UN has no power to change - and that is the fact that Pakistan's military is now in the driver's seat of India policy, and is likely in no mood to be talking about reconciliation.

As for India, the only way I could envision getting New Delhi interested - and it's a big "could" - is if India is somehow given assurance that discussion of Kashmir would be linked to Pakistani efforts to take legal measures against the planners of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, and against terrorists more broadly that target India. Again, this is not something that the UN is in a position to control. At any rate, Pakistan is unlikely to draw these links between talking on Kashmir and taking action against terrorists.

Indien Pakistan Grenze Grenzübergang Wagah Punjab Fahnenzeremonie
Kugelman: Another war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir 'is certainly not out of the realm of possibility'Image: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Do you see the UN playing a bigger role in easing tensions in the region?

No, I don't. Though the UN has been jolted to attention by the increased unrest along the Line of Control, there continue to be issues perceived as more top-priority for the UN than the Kashmir issue. North Korea and Iran were urgent a few years back, but Islamic State, Ebola, and Syria/Iraq - the big-ticket issues for the UN today - are seen as even more urgent. It is unlikely that Kashmir will register as a top-priority issue on the UN's radar anytime soon.

The risk with such inattention is that the issue could be left to lapse and grow ever more perilous. While there's no reason to think India and Pakistan will be fighting another war over Kashmir anytime soon, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. And if a conflict were to break out down the road, the UN would certainly regret not getting more engaged earlier.

Michael Kugelman is a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.