The UN must take the lead in Kashmir

After more than 70 years of terror, killings, torture and disappearances, the international community must renew its efforts to end the conflict in Kashmir. In 2018 and 2019, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released reports that documented a wide range of abuses—including kidnappings, the killing of civilians and sexual violence—perpetrated by both sides in the conflict.

The UN needs to take the lead in stopping Kashmir’s torment. Obviously, the UN cannot impose a solution on India and Pakistan. But it can and should appoint a special envoy to help broker a political solution and deliver lasting peace to the region.

The conflict—largely forgotten by the world—has raged since the partition of India in 1947, when the maharaja abandoned the goal of Kashmiri independence and joined India in exchange for its help with fighting an invasion of tribesmen from Pakistan. As a result, Kashmir has since been divided between India-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts. In the ensuing decades, India and Pakistan have fought two wars and engaged in countless skirmishes over Kashmir, and China has also been involved at times. The situation deteriorated after armed groups began a bombing campaign in the Indian-controlled Kashmir Valley in 1988, marking the beginning of an armed struggle for self-determination that still rages today.

The impact of the ensuing violence has been profound and far-reaching. The conflict has consumed resources that should have been used for development; instead, they were channelled to arms purchases or a regional race to develop weapons of mass destruction. Everyone, regardless of age, religion or ethnicity, has suffered, whether as a result of displacement, family separation, loss of property, the death or disappearance of friends and close relatives, grinding poverty or simply the prospect of a future as bleak and constricted as the present.

The international community has, at times, attempted to mediate between India and Pakistan. The UN has adopted resolutions demanding a referendum on Kashmir’s future status. But, even though it has long been evident that there’s no military solution to the conflict—temporary ceasefire initiatives have never resulted in a lasting agreement—India to this day has resisted a plebiscite.

In 2003, Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, formulated a four-step approach to a political solution. Without insisting on a referendum, India and Pakistan would begin a dialogue, recognise Kashmir as the main source of bilateral hostility, identify and eliminate what was unacceptable to each side, and strive for a solution acceptable to both countries—and especially to the people of Kashmir. A ceasefire was declared, and high-level meetings took place, but, following a terrorist attack, India terminated the talks. In 2012, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried unsuccessfully to revive the process.

I have been personally engaged with the Kashmir issue for some time. Last year, I held meetings with senior politicians in Pakistan and India. I am well aware that India wants to treat the Kashmir conflict solely as a bilateral issue. But in that case, it should take the initiative in starting talks with Pakistan. If that doesn’t happen, the international community must demand that the parties come together to negotiate a peaceful solution.

Again, it is not up to the UN or anyone else to impose a solution on the parties. The current situation is rooted in a highly complex mix of history and politics, and any viable settlement must reflect Kashmir’s unique circumstances. A major issue to be addressed is the ‘line of control’ separating Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which hinders the free movement of people, divides families, and impedes business and trade. And, of course, Kashmir’s future status is the main question that must be resolved.

During my last visit to Kashmir, I saw firsthand the level of violence and the severity of human-rights violations. Conditions have deteriorated further since India repealed Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in October 2019, dissolved it as a state and reorganised it as two ‘union territories’—all enforced by the security forces with a wave of arrests, a ban on assembly, and an internet and media blackout.

At a time of war in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, it’s difficult to get the international community to focus on Kashmir. But it is crucial that the conflict not be allowed to spiral out of control, especially given that both countries are nuclear powers.

Above all, the people of Kashmir deserve a ceasefire, reconciliation and stability, and it is the duty of the UN to advance those goals. I urge the UN to appoint a special envoy to Kashmir. And I appeal to UN Secretary-General António Guterres to seize the initiative and help deliver a long-overdue and lasting peace to this region.