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SAARC MEET ON UN ASSEMBLY SIDELINES UNCERTAIN AFTER AFGHAN REGIME CHANGE

Members Of The Regional Bloc Have Been Historically Convening A Meeting In New York At The Foreign Ministers’ Level To Discuss Regional And Global Issues.

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Citing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba will not be travelling to New York, one of his aides has said, as the 76th session of the UN General Assembly officially opens.

The General Assembly (UNGA) is the only body where all members of the organisation have representation. Since last year’s assembly was virtual, the then prime minister KP Sharma Oli had addressed the assembly virtually.

Nepal has regularly been participating in the assembly either at the prime minister’s or foreign minister’s level.

What is also significant during the annual jamboree in New York is the SAARC member states’ meeting of the Council of Ministers, which is held on the sidelines of the assembly. It has been a tradition that SAARC has followed for around a decade now.

This time around, there is a doubt over the meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers, particularly due to the recent developments in Afghanistan, the youngest member of the regional bloc.

Diplomats and experts on foreign policy matters say the onus is on Nepal to take initiatives for holding the meeting, as it is the current SAARC chair.

As the chair, Nepal’s foreign minister should be sending invitations to all member states for the SAARC meeting on the margins of the UNGA, officials say.

According to officials, the Foreign Ministry earlier was planning to hold a virtual meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers. But this idea was before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

“How to convene the meeting is an issue because we don’t know yet who will represent Afghanistan,” said Durga Bhattarai, a former permanent representative of Nepal to the UN in New York. “Have we recognised the new regime in Afghanistan yet?”

As the United States announced the end of its longest war in Afghanistan, Kabul fell to the Taliban much quicker than anyone had expected, even the militants themselves.

The return of the Taliban, who have a history of repression, has caused unease in the region, with India still maintaining a wait and see position. Only a handful of countries, including China, have so far shown interest to “work” with the new regime.

Afghanistan joined SAARC as its eighth member in 2007.

Earlier last month, after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, calls were made that Nepal, as SAARC chair, should take initiatives for dialogue in view of regional peace.

However, Nepal stopped short of doing so, as the SAARC charter bars discussions on any member state’s internal affairs. But during the UN assembly, as per the tradition, Nepal is obligated to hold a meeting of the Council of Ministers.

The United Nations itself appears to be wary of the Taliban’s return to power. Last week, the UN said that its staff were being harassed and intimidated in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover. Issuing a statement, the UN condemned the Taliban for their "increasingly violent response" to dissent, weeks after the group's rapid takeover of Afghanistan.

Immediately after the Taliban takeover, Nepal said that it would maintain a “neutral policy” on Afghanistan.

Now the Taliban have already formed an interim government, appointing hardliners to key posts, creating more confusion among the regional states.

“What is our position on Afghanistan since it has formed an interim government? What is the view of other SAARC member states? Have we approached the new government in Afghanistan?” said Bhattarai. “There are so many questions to which we don’t have any answers yet. Unless we have answers to these questions, I see little chance of a SAARC meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA.”

Established in 1985, SAARC itself is in a moribund state. It has not been able to hold its 19th summit since it was called off in November 2016 following India’s refusal to participate. As per the SAARC charter, if any of the member states refuses to participate, the summit cannot be held. Nepal became SAARC chair after it hosted the 18th summit in Kathmandu.

As the bloc’s chair, Nepal has the obligation to take the SAARC process forward, but it appears to lack the heft.

Amid the regional bloc’s inability to hold even its regular summit, which is held every two years, the UNGA had been providing an avenue for member states to at least sit down and discuss some regional issues at the foreign ministerial level.

Pradyumna Bikram Shah, the chairman of the Association of Former Career Ambassadors of Nepal, said that two provisions of the SAARC charter bar discussion on bilateral and contentious issues. However, peace and security and humanitarian support for the Afghan people can be discussed at the meeting.

“I think the Afghan issue will come up during the coming session of the UNGA as well as other high-level meetings,” said Shah, a former director at SAARC Secretariat.

“As of now, there is no clarity on holding the meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers. If it is held, I think even India and Pakistan will give different perspectives, and as the SAARC chair, Nepal can raise the issue of humanitarian support for the Afghan people.”

What complicates the matter is Nepal does not have a foreign minister yet. It has been two months since Sher Bahadur Deuba came to power, but he has not been able to expand his Cabinet in the absence of an understanding among coalition partners.

Bhanu Deuba, the prime minister’s chief personal assistant, expressed his hope there will be a foreign minister before the UNGA kicks off in New York.

Sources at the Foreign Ministry said that since Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid has been elected the chairman of the 76th session of the UNGA, Nepal is preparing to send a small team to New York.

If a foreign minister is appointed before September 21, probably s/he will lead the delegation. Otherwise, Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Poudyal will lead the Nepali delegation to New York for the symbolic representation of the country, according to officials.

But a meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers in New York is still up in the air.

“It is a very difficult issue for us. We do want to hold the meeting but there has not been any development in this regard,” a senior official at the Foreign Ministry told the Post. “On the one hand, we do not have a dedicated foreign minister in Kathmandu. On the other, there is a new interim government in Afghanistan.”

If any of the member states refuses to participate in the meeting, it has to be called off.

Officials say if all member states agree, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu are planning to hold the meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers on September 24.

A joint-secretary at the Foreign Ministry said that Kathmandu is closely following the developments in Afghanistan and is trying to gather how the SAARC member states are observing the situation in Kabul.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sewa Lamsal said she is not in a position to comment on the meeting of SAARC Council of Ministers.

Some observers say since Nepal currently chairs the regional grouping, it can use its leverage to persuade the member states for a meeting in New York, where Afghanistan and regional peace can be discussed.

“Nepal should assert itself and try to convene the meeting to the extent possible,” said Milan Tuladhar, who served as a foreign relations adviser to former prime minister Jhala Nath Khanal. “But we have our own crisis… we don’t have a foreign minister. SAARC itself has become a weak organisation. Nepal as chair of the bloc itself is weak.”

Tuladhar, however, believes that Nepal should continue to make every possible effort to bring together the member states to discuss some regional issues in the larger interest of the region.

Asked about the plan on holding the SAARC meeting in New York, Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, the government spokesperson, said he is not aware of the recent developments.

“I need to check with the Foreign Ministry before I can shed light on the matter,” said Karki.