SAARC meet on UN assembly sidelines called off over AfghanistanOfficials say there was lack of concurrence from member states on the meeting which Nepal proposed last week and sent out invitations to all except Kabul.
Days after proposing an in-person meeting of foreign ministers of SAARC in New York on the sidelines of the 76th United Nations General Assembly, Nepal on Tuesday cancelled it, saying there was “no concurrence” among the member states.
A senior Foreign Ministry official confirmed to the Post that the meeting was cancelled on Tuesday after it failed to receive concurrence from all member states.
Nepal is preparing to send its delegation to the UN General Assembly in New York by Wednesday evening which will probably be led by Narayan Khadka, who is set to be appointed foreign minister.
A meeting of the ruling alliance on Tuesday gave the nod to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to appoint Khadka as new foreign minister.
“Khadka is all set to be administered the oath of office and secrecy on Wednesday morning and will leave for New York leading a delegation for the UNGA,” an aide to the prime minister, told the Post.
In the lead-up to the 76th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Nepal was in predicament over the meeting of the foreign ministers of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The meeting, though it is held informally, has been a long-standing tradition.
But given the recent developments in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, Nepal, the current chair of SAARC, was in confusion. Afghanistan joined the regional bloc in 2007 to become its eighth member.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Nepal presents its compliments to the Secretariat of the South Asian Association for the Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Kathmandu, and with reference to the ministry’s note verbale dated September 14, 2021, has the honour to inform that due to the lack of concurrence from all member states as of today, the informal meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers’ proposed to be held in person on September 25 on the sidelines of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York will not take place,” reads the correspondence by the ministry.
The SAARC Secretariat then accordingly corresponded with member states regarding the cancellation of the meeting.
India Today, one of India’s prominent news magazines, published the correspondence made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Kathmandu-based SAARC Secretariat, urging it to inform the member states about the cancellation of the meeting.
Though the correspondence does not explicitly say how a concurrence could not be achieved among the member states, two government officials confirmed to the Post that the meeting was cancelled after at least one member state raised the issue regarding participation, or a lack of it, from Afghanistan.
Established in 1985, SAARC 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. Last year, the SAARC meeting of foreign ministers in New York was held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This time, Nepal, as SAARC chair, wanted to conduct an in-person meeting so as to make a push for moving the SAARC process forward. As per the tradition, it has to send formal invitations to all member states.
But the recent developments in Afghanistan put Kathmandu in a fix.
Nepal’s predicament was immense—not sending an invitation to a member state could mean ignoring it, and sending an invitation would mean recognising the new regime.
After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Nepal said it would pursue a “neutral” policy.
When Nepal sent out invitations to member states for the meeting in New York, it skipped Afghanistan, given the recent regime change in the country. Countries across the world have been in a wait-and-see mode ever since the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan after two decades, as the United States ended its longest war ever.
Pakistan is the only member in SAARC which has so far not been reluctant to recognise the Taliban government, even though it has maintained its own level of caution.
India, which has huge stakes in Afghanistan, politically and financially, has not made up its mind on whether to recognise the Taliban regime.
But when it came to the SAARC meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA, it was incumbent upon Nepal to make a call.
The Post reported last week that the SAARC meeting of foreign ministers was uncertain given the developments in Afghanistan. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went ahead and sent out invitations to the member states.
Even though a new government under the Taliban has been formed in Kabul, Ghulam M Isaczai, appointed by Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president who fled the country on August 15, is still representing Afghanistan in the UNGA. Isaczai was appointed Afghanistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations by Ghani.
The Foreign Ministry official said Nepal, as SAARC chair, is in no position to guarantee that someone from the new regime in Afghanistan won’t participate in the meeting if it is held.
“We were in a dilemma, so we decided to call the meeting off,” said the official who did not wish to be named. “Though the meeting is organised in a hotel in New York, if someone does a gate crashing and takes the seat, how can we say no to the guest? Since we cannot guarantee that such a thing won’t happen, we decided to cancel the meeting on Tuesday.”
However, it is believed that the meeting had to be cancelled after Pakistan expressed its concerns over leaving out Afghanistan.
“The esteemed [SAARC] Secretariat is kindly requested to circulate this communication among SAARC member states,” reads the letter by the Foreign Ministry to the SAARC Secretariat regarding the cancellation of the meeting. “The ministry regrets any inconvenience caused due to the change.”
Given the informal status of the SAARC meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UNGA, member states usually extend their concurrence even if they cannot send their foreign ministers, as they can also show their representation by sending their permanent representatives or foreign secretaries.
As per the tradition, the chair of the regional bloc has to send its foreign minister.
“But anyway, when—just like it happens in case of the summit—one member state does not give its consent to the meeting, it automatically gets cancelled,” said the Foreign Ministry official. “After one member state raised the issue of representation of another member state, we decided to call the meeting off,” added the official, who refused to reveal which member state actually raised the issue.