Foreign Secretary-level meeting in Islamabad: Sticky Issues remain unresolved

Foreign Secretary-level meeting in Islamabad: Sticky Issues remain unresolved

On 1st November, Bangladesh and Pakistan begin a two-day fifth round of annual consultation at Foreign Secretary’s level in Islamabad after a four-year interval, although they are expected to meet once every year under an agreed protocol signed in 2002. The meeting is to be welcomed.

Bangladesh’s foreign affairs secretary, Mohammed Mijarul Quayes, and his Pakistani counterpart, Salman Bashir, led their sides at the meeting. The last annual consultation between the two countries was last held in 2007 in Dhaka.

It is reported the two sides held a detailed overview of bilateral relations over a wide range of issues including economy, trade, education, cultural and consular issues. The two sides discussed issues such as reducing the trade gap, strengthening economic cooperation through convening Bangladesh-Pakistan Economic Commission and restoring the link between the seaports of Chittagong and Karachi.

During the talks both sides agreed to hold a senior official meeting in the next few months as a follow-up of the discussions held. Both sides agreed to initiate preparatory work for leadership level visits and intensify consultation. Decision was taken to hold in next six months a meeting at the Foreign Minister’s level to pave the way for head of government visit sometime in 2011.

The economic relation is not as robust as it should be. Pakistan does not feature among Bangladesh’s top 15 export destinations. During 2008-09, Bangladesh exported products worth only $76 million to Pakistan and imported goods worth $ 288 million, heavily tilted towards Pakistan. The two-way trade could potentially rise to $1 billion, if earnest efforts are adopted.

The question is why the relations with Pakistan have not blossomed to their potentials?

There are primarily two reasons: Firstly, the political relationship between the two countries are affected by the war of 1971 when Pakistan army brutally killed innocent Bengali people and many survivors or families of victims remember these atrocities to this day. And Pakistan has regrettably not addressed the sensitive issue of reconciliation adequately with Bangladesh people in a way that the survivors in Bangladesh may come to terms with painful experiences at the hands of Pakistan army.

Secondly, Pakistan has been going through an unprecedented political turmoil compounded by the attacks of the Talibans in main cities in the country to the extent that some think Pakistan would have been a “failed state” but for the billions of dollars dished out by the US to Pakistan government and the relentless attacks by the US on Talibans on Pakistan-Afghanistan border. An unpopular President, a weak and opportunistic opposition, conflict between government and highest judiciary on corruption cases and ethnic conflicts in Karachi and in Baluchistan make an ideal place for Talibans to operate with impunity.

It is argued there are primarily three issues which need to be addressed for development of full potentials of bilateral relations:

• Formal apology from Pakistan for the manifold crimes on civilian Bengali people in 1971
• Division of assets of undivided Pakistan
• Repatriation of the Urdu-speaking people (“Biharis”) who opted for Pakistan in 1971 because some of kith and kin live in Pakistan.

There is a strong sentiment in the country that Pakistan leaders including military establishment fail to understand the depth of feelings among majority of ordinary people in the country for a formal apology by Pakistan for the inhuman crimes perpetrated on Bengalis during the nine -month long war.

It is noted that Japan and Germany apologised to the countries where they perpetrated atrocities on their people. However Pakistan as yet did not apologise for manifold crimes committed in Bangladesh in 1971.

What Pakistan has so far done is that their leaders, while visiting Bangladesh, regretted the “mistakes of the past” –an ambiguous phrase which means different things to different people and may be interpreted in various ways.

Only Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his visit in 1998 came close to having remorse for the crimes committed in Bangladesh by Pakistan army but when he returned to Pakistan it was believed that the Foreign Minister under pressure from the army establishment diluted the Prime Minister’s remark in Dhaka.

The expression of regret is not an apology because apology has three elements. Apology means first the acknowledgement of crimes committed and second expressing remorse for crimes in uncertain words and third doing something to restore that manifestly wrong and hurtful.

Second, the quantifiable assets of undivided Pakistan are easily be identifiable and Pakistan has obligations to divide these assets between Pakistan and Bangladesh. The assets include gold, foreign currency, defence equipments, Pakistan Airlines and vessels of Pakistan Shipping Corporation. The value of the assets as of 1974 stood at $4.32 billion.

It seems that the longer the time it takes to resolve, Pakistan imagines that Bangladesh will tend to forget this demand of division of assets. This perception is misplaced and the issue needs to be addressed in a dispassionate matter. A joint expert’s committee may be constituted to look into the issue and recommend the division of assets.

Third, there are about 238,000 Urdu –speaking people in Bangladesh who wish to be repatriated to Pakistan because they exercised option in 1972 to go to Pakistan for family reasons. Meanwhile the Bangladesh High Court in recent years has ruled that those born after 1971 in Bangladesh can remain as citizens of Bangladesh.

These difficult issues have been reportedly raised by the Bangladesh side during the talks and it was reported that, Pakistan foreign secretary stated that they remain “open” to continue discussion on all the outstanding issues at all levels.

Political wounds need to be healed up and it takes time. However, Pakistan can make it quicker to heal the wounds by resolving the three issues raised above. It is not understood to people in Bangladesh why the new generation of leaders in government and military who have nothing to do in committing atrocities in Bangladesh cannot offer apology to people of Bangladesh, when majority of younger generation in Pakistan including academics, lawyers and journalists believe strongly that an apology is an appropriate for the horrible crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes were perpetrated on the civilian people of Bangladesh in 1971.

It cannot be denied the overall bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Pakistan has often been affected by unpleasant consequences of the 1971 War of Liberation.

Unless Pakistan initiates to commence the process or mechanism to resolve three issues in a pragmatic manner, there is a view that there will be hesitation among many people in Bangladesh to develop a full range and pattern of relationship with Pakistan. Evidence in all regions of the world confirms that there is interdependence between political and economic relationship.

SAARC is a regional political architecture and Bangladesh has been keen to have close relations with all countries within the SAARC including Pakistan for addressing the common challenges of poverty and underdevelopment of the region.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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