New Delhi: Alice Wells, the US’ Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, held a special briefing at the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, addressing a wide range of issues in the region.
Wells not only told India that the US wanted rapid action in easing the restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir as well as the release of persons detained, but also asked Pakistan why it was only bothered about the human rights of Muslims in Kashmir and not about the “horrific conditions” of those in China.
Wells spoke a day before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan are set to address the UN General Assembly.
The following is a transcript of Wells’ statements, lightly edited for clarity, with the background context provided by ThePrint.
On Pakistan’s ‘commitment’ to combat terror
Context: PM Modi is expected to highlight the threat of cross-border terrorism that India faces from Pakistan. Besides, Pakistan will soon be subjected to massive scrutiny on terror funding and money laundering at the upcoming plenary of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in October, failing which it might be put on a ‘blacklist’.
Alice Wells: “I think the President’s message was clear. He has a strong relationship with the leaders of both India and Pakistan, and the world would benefit from reduced tensions and increased dialogue between the two countries. And given these factors, the President is willing to mediate if asked by both parties.
“We’re continuing to welcome Pakistan Prime Minister Khan’s commitment to prevent cross-border terrorism and to fulfil Pakistan’s stated commitment to combat militant and terrorist groups without distinction. I think the prime minister made an important statement last week where he called militants seeking to cross the border enemies of Pakistan and the Kashmiri people.”
On the lockdown in Kashmir
Context: The lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir entered its 55th day Friday. Meanwhile, a number of political leaders of J&K continue to remain under detention. Recently, the Modi government booked National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah under the Public Safety Act.
Alice Wells: “Prime Minister Khan obviously raised his concerns on Kashmir, and as we’ve noted previously, the United States is concerned by widespread detentions, including those of politicians and business leaders, and the restrictions on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir.
“We look forward to the Indian government’s resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of the promised elections at the earliest opportunity. As President Trump emphasised, Prime Minister Modi made a commitment that the recent changes to the status of Kashmir will improve the lives of the Kashmiri people, and we look to him to uphold this promise.”
On failed India-US trade package
Context: India and US have failed to reach an agreement on concluding a ‘limited’ trade package, despite widespread expectations. According to many insiders this is due to the Trump administration’s insistence on mediating in Kashmir. In his bilateral with Imran Khan, Trump said the US is seeking to expand trade ties with Pakistan as well.
Alice Wells: “As you saw in his address at the General Assembly, President Trump is very focused on fair and reciprocal trade as central to the global order, and expanding trade with India and Pakistan is also a top priority.”
On how India & Pakistan can get along
Context: Since 2016, the Modi government has remained firm on its stance that “talks and terror” cannot go together. However, after the abrogation of Article 370, the government has said talks with Pakistan will now “only” be on the issue of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Alice Wells: “I think Prime Minister Modi has made it clear his position that he’s not seeking mediation. I think what we would like to see are the conditions whereby India and Pakistan can have a constructive conversation that leads to an improvement of relations between the two nuclear powers.
“And obviously, that is going to hinge [on] counterterrorism, [on] Pakistan’s seriousness of effort in ensuring that groups don’t take advantage and engage in cross-border infiltration, that there are serious steps to implement the Financial Action Task Force action plan that Pakistan has committed to, and which includes the prosecution of UN-designated terrorists. So whether it’s Hafiz Saeed who currently is in custody and under prosecution, but also leaders of Jaish-e-Mohammed, like Masood Azhar, who long have been able to exploit their presence on Pakistani soil.
“But as Pakistan takes these steps — and Prime Minister Khan has been very explicit that that is his intention and his objective — as Pakistan takes these steps, can we then see a reduction in tensions between the two countries and productive engagement between the two?”
On elections in J&K
Context: As of now, the Modi government has not indicated when the lockdown and communication blockade in J&K will be lifted. However, the government has maintained that it will hold elections soon. According to some media reports, elections to the block development councils in J&K will be held around 25 October.
Alice Wells: “We’ve discussed these concerns with the Indian government at all levels. Prime Minister Modi in August, after the actions that were taken in Kashmir, sort of laid out a plan and objectives of returning Kashmir political life and restoration of even state status and engagement with a new generation of political leaders. And I think we are interested in knowing the next steps in engagement and encouraging that political dialogue to begin, in which we hope to see rapid action in the lifting of the restrictions and in the release of those who have been detained.”
On investment summit in J&K
Context: The J&K administration has announced that a three-day global investors’ summit will be organised in Srinagar on 12 October. Meanwhile, Reliance Industries Limited chairman Mukesh Ambani stated last month he will be making substantial investments in Kashmir.
Alice Wells: “I’m not aware of any investment conference currently planned. But obviously, steps that would benefit the Kashmiri people we would welcome — I mean, economic benefits to the Kashmiri people. But right now, the focus I think has been on the return to political life and to a dialogue between the parties. This is an issue that members of Congress have raised in letters that they’ve sent to the administration and there will be — [the US] Congress has called for testimony on human rights in South Asia.”
On no investor expressing interest in Kashmir
Context: No investors or countries have confirmed their participation yet in the proposed J&K global investors’ summit. On his week-long trip to the US, PM Modi met a host of business leaders there from top companies, but not a single investor has publicly expressed desire to invest in Kashmir.
Alice Wells: “I think that what the President underscored was Prime Minister Modi’s commitment that he’s made publicly to the people of India and to the people of Kashmir. And so, we would welcome steps that would lead to increased economic growth and the well-being of the Kashmiri people. That’s also obviously going to require there to be a normalised political environment and the involvement and engagement of the residents of Kashmir.”
On the plight of Uyghurs in China
Context: Under the Trump administration, the US has been consistently advocating the plight of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province. However, leaders like Imran Khan, who said in a recent interview that he doesn’t know much about Uyghurs, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke substantially on Kashmir and human rights at the UNGA, have been silent on Uyghurs. Both their countries enjoy friendly ties with China.
Alice Wells: “Obviously, I think we’ve all seen and heard Prime Minister Khan’s strong statements. I would say in general across the region, a lowering of rhetoric would be welcome, particularly between two nuclear powers. And again, we have shared and expressed our concerns over the human rights situation in Kashmir. We welcome improvements in that situation.
“I would like to see the same level of concern expressed also about Muslims who are being detained in western China, literally in concentration-like conditions. And so, being concerned about the human rights of Muslims does extend more broadly than Kashmir, and you’ve seen the administration very involved here during the UN General Assembly and trying to shine a light on the horrific conditions that continue to exist for Muslims throughout China.”