IT was the most unexpected thing that could happen. UN Secretary-General KofiAnnan himself saying the UN resolutions on Kashmir hadn't helped and that the best thing was for the two countries to talk directly. That's what he did at his press conference in New Delhi on April 7, when Pakistan foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan too was in town.
The Pakistani case for the last 50 years has been based on the UN resolutions on Kashmir, which asked for restoration of status quo ante—that is, withdrawal of the tribal invaders Pakistan had pushed into Kashmir in 1947—and holding of plebiscite. While India has argued that the UN resolutions have been overtaken by events, and the Simla agreement should be the basis of any deal on Kashmir, Islamabad rejects this.
In fact, Annan had a lot more to say. The comments came in response to an innocuous question about the UN role in Kashmir. He said he was pleased with the developments in this region and had spoken to both Indian External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral and Gohar Ayub. "We'll do what we can, but the best line is to talk directly. If you can sort out issues like trade, communications, travel, even though some hard issues may not get resolved, you can keep them on the side".
He appreciated Gujral's policy of "good neighbourliness" and mentioned Nepal and Bangladesh and hoped ties between Islamabad and New Delhi would also improve, so that "resources can be shifted from defence to social and developmental issues". The "right thing is to talk directly". Subsequently, asked what he thought of the UN resolutions on Kashmir, he answered: "Obviously they have not solved the problem. The two countries are talking directly. I think that is the best thing".
This clearly hasn't gone down well in Islamabad. His comments were generally underplayed in Pakistan. Gohar Ayub did not react and the Pakistan foreign office, when approached for comments, was not amused. "The UN resolutions should be top priority. It is wrong to put the Kashmir issue aside and it does not behove the UN secretary-general to bail out the Indians on Kashmir," said its spokesman, in an especially strong rebuttal.
The spokesman advised the secretary-general to play a "larger role in carrying out necessary steps to implement the UN resolutions on Kashmir. The UN is a party to the issue and we do not expect the Secretary General to put aside the resolutions and speak of other issues". He pointed out that the UN had a certain sanctity and the "main duty of the secretary-general is to ensure a respect for the UN resolutions". In that light, he even accused Annan of "toeing the Indian line".
Annan was asked if he was suggesting putting Kashmir on the backburner. "I won't put it like that. There are certain elements you can resolve quickly," he said. He felt the two nations should develop goodwill and move ahead. "You can't refuse to move ahead", he pointed out, adding that as for the UN, "we will do what we can".
The Pakistani spokesman welcomed that, noting that he had a role to play within the legal framework of the UN. "His predecessor had offered a similar role provided both the countries agreed. But New Delhi has always spurned such offers of goodwill, taking the plea that this is a bilateral issue," the spokesman stated.
Indian officials are certainly going to use Annan's statement as prime ammunition against the UN resolutions. Pakistan does have a problem. Even last year, there was a move in the UN, resisted by Pakistan, to delete issues like Kashmir from the agenda. As the spokesman noted, even Boutros Boutros Ghali was told it was his duty as secretary-general to ensure these resolutions are implemented. It is unlikely that India would ever take up the offer of mediation by anyone else. It's not possible in the foreseeable future. Gohar Ayub told journalists on his return at Karachi that Annan had invited him and Gujral to New York around the time of the UN General Assembly session later this for a meeting "over a dining table, where just the two foreign ministers and Annan will be present". But that's a long way off.