High drama at SAARC meet as External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi boycott each other’s statements

Tension at the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ meeting has set the stage for speeches by Narendra Modi and Imran Khan, the first time the two Prime Ministers will face off at the United Nations.

Updated - December 03, 2021 08:06 am IST

Published - September 27, 2019 12:13 am IST - NEW YORK.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar arrives for the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ lunch in New York.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar arrives for the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ lunch in New York.

Pakistan and India boycotted each other’s statements at a meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Foreign Ministers here. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he would not attend the speech by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar first, announcing at the last minute that he would not attend the SAARC Minister’s lunch while Mr. Jaishankar was speaking. Mr. Jaishankar then made his statement and left the meeting, minutes before the Pakistani Foreign Minister’s arrival, ensuring that the two Ministers were not present in the room together at any point.

Mr. Jaishankar did not comment on the dramatic events at the SAARC meet. Later, tweeting about his speech, he wrote, “Ours is not just a story of missed opportunities but also of deliberate obstacles... Elimination of terrorism is a precondition not only for fruitful cooperation but also for the very survival of the region itself.”

As he went in to the meeting, Mr. Qureshi said he could not “sit and talk” with “killers of Kashmiris.” Mr. Qureshi’s decision was put out in a tweet 20 minutes after the meeting was due to start at a downtown hotel near the United Nations. The tweet, put out by Pakistan’s ruling party the PTI, said Pakistan would not engage with India unless it “lifted the siege and put an end to atrocities in [Kashmir].” The lunch meet then proceeded as scheduled with statements from delegations and Ministers from other SAARC countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and the current SAARC chair Nepal, who sat through both statements.

Pakistan was represented by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Faisal during the External Affairs Minister’s speech, who indicated to Mr. Jaishankar that he would officiate in place of Mr. Qureshi. Ironically, Mr. Faisal had told The Hindu just a few minutes prior to the lunch that the SAARC charter did not allow for “bilateral issues to take centre-stage.” Pakistan has been protesting India’s decision to boycott the SAARC summit due to be held in Islamabad since 2016, until cross-border terrorism ends, which has meant that the SAARC summit, which requires all leaders to attend, cannot be held. India has engaged all other SAARC members at different fora, including BIMTEC, BBIN and also bilaterally, stressing that these are more productive avenues at present.

After the meeting, Mr. Qureshi claimed that Pakistan had secured the consent of the group to organise the SAARC summit in Islamabad next year. “If India thinks it is still a member of SAARC, it is most welcome to attend,” Mr. Qureshi said, adding that “no country” had objected to Pakistan’s proposal for the summit.

U.N. speech

The tensions at the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ meeting set the stage for speeches by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, the first time the two leaders will face-off at the United Nations. While Mr. Khan has made it clear that he intends to devote most of his speech at the UN to appeal to the world body to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir to ensure the restrictions imposed after August 5 are lifted, the Ministry of External Affairs said Mr. Modi would not refer to Kashmir in his speech.

“Our Prime Minister will focus on what the United Nations General Assembly’s high level segment is meant to focus, which is, as an important economy, as an important country, as a responsible member of the United Nations, the Prime Minister will flag what we are doing for development, for security, for peace and our expectations and aspirations of other countries,” Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said before Mr. Modi’s visit.

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