Dismissing the Members of European Parliament (MEPs) who visited Kashmir as lacking “expertise”, Finland has asked India to allow UN observers and Delhi-based diplomats to travel to the Union Territory and assess the situation there.
Finland currently holds the EU Council Presidency.
Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, who held meetings in New Delhi with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday, said he had raised “concerns” over the situation in Jammu & Kashmir, including about “human rights, freedom of speech and the detention of politicians”.
“At least if the diplomatic community based in Delhi could visit the region, it would create more confidence about what is going on. Transparency of the situation is better as otherwise all kinds of rumours and reports are floating around,” Mr. Haavisto said in an interview to The Hindu .
He said the Modi government had noted his recommendations, but not responded to them yet.
He added that the government had apprised him of New Delhi’s efforts “to calm the region and fight terrorism”.
“[The MEP delegation sent] was not, in my understanding, a multi-party and politically balanced delegation,” Mr. Haavisto continued, referring to the largely right-wing parties from Europe that were given a tour of Srinagar last week. “It is good if people who have expertise about the situation in this region or on human rights, freedom of the media issues etc. are involved. As a former UN person, I would rely on United Nations observers, and in this kind of situation they may be the most unbiased.”
When asked about the proposal by Mr. Haavisto for UN observers to be sent, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar told journalists that ministers had discussed the matter, but that the “intent, context of visit & ground situation has to be taken into account” before any such visit would be considered.
Mr. Haavisto also called the tensions between India and Pakistan “unsustainable” and advised the two sides to begin dialogue for a “final settlement” of the Kashmir conflict.
The comments from the Finnish Foreign Minister are a part of a growing number of calls to the government for more transparency over conditions in Jammu and Kashmir after the decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution. Last Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her visit to Delhi, referred to the situation for ordinary Kashmiris as “unsustainable”.
Last month U.S. lawmakers had criticised the government for not allowing American delegations to visit the Valley, and even an MEP invited to visit Srinagar last week had said the government should allow Indian opposition MPs to travel there.
During the interview, Mr. Haavisto spoke about plans for further economic cooperation between India and Finland, especially on developing green technologies to combat climate change, and air pollution challenges, which he said, he had experienced himself during his visit.
Finland holds the EU Council Presidency at present, which is a rotating position, and Mr. Haavisto discussed the resumption of the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA or FTA) between the EU and India with Ms. Sitharaman.
However, he cautioned that the FTA talks could take some time to be restarted, and then to be concluded, and suggested that India’s decision to cancel all its investment treaties in 2014 before renegotiating them had “slowed down” investment in the country from Finnish companies hesitant to take the “risk”.
Full text of the interview
Finland was one of the few countries External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited after the decision on Article 370, and you are visiting Delhi now. What can you share on the conversations you have had on Kashmir?
Both our meetings included very honest and in-depth discussions of the Kashmir situation. In Helsinki we had raised the question, and had been given an explanation on the government’s efforts to calm the region and fight against terrorism etc. At that time, we had expressed our concerns about human rights and freedom of speech and the detention of politicians. We had the same agenda during this visit, and want to ask about the possibility to have international observers, including U.N. observers to travel up to Kashmir. At least if the diplomatic community based in Delhi could visit the region, it would create more confidence about what is going on. Transparency of the situation is better as, otherwise, all kinds of rumours and reports are floating around. Our other message is that there must be a final settlement of the situation, as we believe the tensions between India and Pakistan are unsustainable, and they must find a way to sit down and finding a solution, but this has to be an initiative of the region.
You said international observers should be sent, but last week, the government did actually send a group of 23 European Parliament members (MEPs)….
[The MEP delegation sent] was not, in my understanding, a multi-party and politically balanced delegation. I don’t want to criticise if anyone is travelling and reporting about the situation in Kashmir, but it is good if people who have expertise about the situation in this region or on human rights, freedom of the media issues etc. are involved. As a former U.N. person, I would rely on United Nations observers, and in this kind of situation they may be the most unbiased.
How did the [Indian] government respond to this?
We have been mentioning this during our meetings, which were held in a good atmosphere, and I think Mr. Jaishankar has taken note of our view, but nothing else yet has happened.
During a visit here last week, German Chancellor Merkel said the situation for people in Kashmir is unsustainable. Would you agree?
I understand that some of the news and rumours we are hearing are of concern and the situation is not normal. Shops are not open, people can’t go to work, or others are not able to harvest [crops]. News like this normally means that economic development is worsening too, and people’s livelihoods are becoming difficult, so this is also a concern.
How do you think the India-Pakistan conflict should be resolved, and while India has rejected all third party mediation, are you offering to play a role? You personally have experience in ending conflict, including this year in the peace agreement in Sudan’s Darfur.
In these kind of long-lasting conflicts like Kashmir, where in the past we even had Finnish peacekeepers (UNMOGIP observer mission) at one time but we don’t have them now, it is quite obvious that the willingness to talk has to come from the parties themselves, and then if they decide can choose a third party that they trust. But usually, it is not the third party that offers. That is my experience.
What sort of role does Finland see for itself here?
We have a very long-term connection with India, and we want to have discussions not just on the situation here, but on the situation in Afghanistan. India has an Indo-Pacific interest, it is involved with Arctic Circle, there are similar issues of climate change, so we have a lot of interests and we believe in multilateral cooperation and the rule of order.
How are the two countries going to cooperate on climate change?
I was in Chennai during this visit, [for talk at IIT Madras, and inauguration of new factory by Finnish company KONE] and we discussed how the climate crisis must be solved in the cities where a large part of pollution is generated. We need to build green cities, find more environmentally friendly traffic solutions, and energy solutions. India can really build the model on this, and implement new technologies. Finland has a lot of companies producing innovations, and India could provide the ground for it.
On India-EU FTA
You’ve had meetings with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman as well as External Affairs Minister Jaishankar. After India’s decision to drop out of the RCEP agreement, all eyes are on the FTA with the European Union, the EU-BTIA talks, which have been suspended for six years. How soon do you think talks can restart?
Well of course, Finland is in favour of this agreement, but usually it is quite a long way between the negotiations and when it actually starts. We had some success this summer with the EU-Latin American FTA, the Mercosur agreement, but it took a long, long time. There are steps that can be taken in advance, like an investment protection agreement, and we look forward to discussing them at the EU-India summit expected next March with the new European Commission. With China and Japan, we have regular annual summits, but unfortunately the EU-India summit keeps getting postponed, so another step is to have regular summits.
Finland is the President of the EU Council for another two months; do you expect any announcement during your tenure?
We are currently working on the programme for the new commission, so that may not happen. Our priority even when we are not the President will be to try and get these agreements done.
In 2014, the (Modi) government decided to scrap all existing investment treaties, as a result of which the Finland-India treaty lapsed. Do you think it was a mistake to cancel the existing treaty without renegotiating a new one first?
Of course, particularly now when we are in the middle of the Brexit process, we would appreciate an option where negotiations are held first and partners are informed before decisions. Talks with the EU can also be challenging sometimes, given its 28 members need to give a mandate. For our companies there are many sectors where they would like to invest. We came here during the bad air quality in Delhi and in our delegation we had companies working on green technologies, and there is a huge interest here.
But without a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) in place, it is difficult to invest here?
Of course, and this is slowing down the decision. It is up to the individual companies what kind of risk they are ready to take, but of course, if you want to improve the climate for new investments and make it possible for smaller companies to increase trade then these kinds of agreements (BIT) are extremely useful.