India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, are at the brink of war over Kashmir. It should be at the heart of foreign policy debate by our party leaders.

Domestic issues are undoubtedly critical to voters in this election because they affect Canadians directly and in the short term. Foreign affairs rarely engage voters or affect choices at the ballot box.

The low interest in foreign policy is evident in leaders’ debates. Organizers of the Munk Debates cancelled a proposed debate on foreign policy after Liberal leader Justin Trudeau refused to participate. The Maclean’s Leaders Debate on September 12 included only a short segment focused on China, Brexit and NATO. The official debates in early October added little to voters’ understanding of the parties’ positions on international affairs.

Still, with growing uncertainty in politics around the world, Canada’s performance on the global stage is important and relevant in this campaign. Canada has many challenges at the international level, from ratifying the new NAFTA and mending its strained relationship with Saudi Arabia to resolving disputes with China on extradition and trade. One issue that deserves more attention is the ongoing conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, especially after India’s decision to revoke the autonomous status of the part of Kashmir that it administers, further escalating tensions between two nuclear-armed states.

Canadian voters should hear more about how parties and party leaders envisage this country’s role in South Asia, considering how volatile the region has become over Kashmir and the ramifications of this crisis for Canada’s economic and security relations in the region. South Asia is a rising part of the world. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not only big sources of immigrants but markets for Canada to diversify its economy. India signed a trade agreement with Canada in 2018 and is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. 

Recent escalations over Kashmir

Kashmir is a territory fiercely contested between India and Pakistan, and the conflict has escalated into three wars. The two countries agreed in 1949 upon a ceasefire line, which became the de facto border splitting Kashmir into two parts: Indian-administered Kashmir (also known as Jammu and Kashmir) and Pakistan-administered Kashmir (Azad Kashmir). While India blames Pakistan for harbouring terrorists in its sector, Pakistan accuses India of human rights violations. Amid these accusations, it’s the Kashmiris who continue to suffer. Half of the people living in both parts of Kashmir want their disputed and divided land to become an independent country, according to a 2010 poll.

On August 5, India revoked Article 370 in the Indian constitution, which had allowed Indian-administered Kashmir broad autonomy and special privileges. Pakistan responded by downgrading diplomatic ties and expelling the Indian high commissioner. In September, at the United Nations General Assembly, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned India’s actions and reiterated Pakistan’s longstanding position that the territory’s fate should be decided by Kashmiris themselves. Khan went further and warned the United Nations that if it allows the situation to deteriorate further, two nuclear-armed states could go head to head for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi justified India’s actions as democratic and necessary to promote investments in its sector. Meanwhile, media reports suggest that India has imposed a military-style lockdown, trapping millions and cutting their access to the outside world.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to both countries to exercise “maximum restraint” and to allow for meaningful dialogue as the “final status of Jammu and Kashmir is to be settled by peaceful means.” Although Pakistan continues to raise its concerns globally and seek international support to mediate the conflict, India is firm that it remains a strictly bilateral issue — a position that is also backed by US President Donald Trump.

But Kashmir has never been solely a bilateral issue. Both India and Pakistan have taken the matter to the United Nations Security Council on numerous occasions since gaining independence in 1947. The most significant resolution from the Security Council, which ironically came as a result of India seeking international support, was Resolution 47, adopted in 1948; it mandated a UN agency to arrange for a plebiscite so that the people of Kashmir could choose their future. Canada supported the resolution and the effort to implement it, but the plebiscite did not occur. After more than 70 years of failed resolutions and agreements, Kashmiris continue to struggle for self-determination, and the international community and Canada still have a responsibility to them.

The role Canada could play on Kashmir

Although some Canadians trapped in Indian-administered Kashmir have returned, others remain scattered in the region. Indo-Pak Canadians are urging Ottawa to take definitive actions to help defuse the situation and aid those in peril. Before the election campaign began, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a mild statement, asking “all parties to maintain peace and stability.” The NDP foreign affairs critic, Guy Caron, voiced his concern and asked the Liberal government to find courage to stand against the Indian government’s crackdown. Both NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May have denounced India’s role in the conflict. The Conservatives have yet to make any statement on the issue.

Party leaders are unlikely to take positions against a rising India, because of the risk of alienating Indo-Canadian voters. But they should recognize that Canada has trade and security relationships in the region, and that both sides of the conflict would benefit greatly from preserving stability and peace. Realistically, Canada’s options as an honest broker within this conflict are limited. India’s economic prowess has silenced many G7 countries and it is unwilling to open dialogue over Kashmir. But Canada could take the role that has traditionally been played by the US in times of crisis: to lead diplomatic efforts and help de-escalate the situation between India and Pakistan through the United Nations.

First, Canada must rally the support of member states at the Security Council to ensure that the Kashmir conflict remains on the Council’s agenda. Both India and Pakistan acknowledge that a military solution is out of the question, and Canada must build upon this common understanding and make the case for the situation as not only a political issue but, more importantly, a humanitarian crisis in one of the most militarized parts of the world, where appeasement and inaction could draw dire consequences. Furthermore, Canada can urge its allies at the UN to put pressure on India to end its lockdown and restore Article 370. Canada must also ensure that at the heart of any joint statement by the Council, self-determination should be the ultimate outcome. Secondly, if India ends the lockdown, Canada can actively work with its UN allies to ensure that the observer group that was established by the United Nations after Resolution 47 can ensure a peaceful transition.

When Canada is campaigning for a temporary seat on the Security Council and promises to “stand up for the things that matter” and “be relentless in our diplomacy,” the Kashmir conflict poses an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate its leadership and commitment to world peace and security. In this election campaign, the two political parties that have a realistic chance to form government, the Liberals and Conservatives, are avoiding foreign policy and focusing on pocketbook issues. In a speech in August, Trudeau acknowledged that “the world has changed, and quickly,” and he pledged that Canada will continue to play an active role in preserving and strengthening the global order; he cited Canada’s bid for the Security Council seat as a concrete step toward that ambition. Looking to contrast his party with the Liberals, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer promised a stronger foreign policy and vowed to “restore Canada’s place in the world” during the Maclean’s debate, but he has also said that winning a seat at the Security Council would not be his priority, and that he would cut Canada’s foreign aid by 25 percent.

Both leaders acknowledge that Canada’s foreign policy is at a crossroads. If Canada is to strongly position itself on the world stage, the next prime minister can build on the country’s historic reputation as an honest broker and ensure that stability between India and Pakistan remains at the forefront of Canada’s foreign policy goals in the subcontinent. 

Photo: Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. Shutterstock by Faizan Ahmad sheikh


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