WHEN the Indian foreign secretary arrived in Islamabad recently for a routine Saarc visit, it was hoped that the stalled bilateral dialogue between Pakistan and India would resume. However, the meeting made little progress, other than an undertaking by the two foreign secretaries to meet again.
While the resolution of the Kashmir dispute is fraught with difficulties, largely because of its political and ideological significance, Siachen and the Sir Creek dispute are much easier to resolve because they are territorial and maritime delimitation disputes respectively and their resolution does not risk serious political fallout.
The Siachen dispute is particularly significant because of the immense human and financial costs incurred by both states to sustain their military presence in the region. Over 8,000 military personnel have died in Siachen, with 95pc of the deaths caused by extreme weather conditions rather than combat operations. Annually India and Pakistan spend about Rs30 billion and Rs5.4bn respectively on maintaining troops here.
The Siachen dispute continues to take a heavy toll.
Importantly, the ongoing military presence is also having an adverse impact on Siachen’s ecosystem. Military presence and activity have led to high toxicity levels in the region and the glacier is melting and eroding at an accelerated rate with toxins flowing downstream. Because of extreme temperatures there is no biodegradability of human waste and a number of endangered species are further threatened.
From a legal point of view, Pakistan is in a strong position. When India unilaterally annexed the Siachen Glacier in 1984, it did so in violation of the Shimla Declaration, 1972, and the Karachi Agreement, 1949. The former prohibits any attempt to unilaterally alter the course of the Line of Control. Under the Karachi Agreement, the LoC was defined to extend up till “Khor, thence north to the glaciers”. Pakistan’s position, reflected in the majority of official world maps, correctly interprets “north to the glacier” under international law to follow its natural north-westerly course, extending the LoC up to the Karakoram Pass.
International maps historically showing Siachen as part of Pakistan’s territory also confirm recognition of Pakistan’s legal claim over Siachen. Official maps can be determinative of a dispute over a boundary and, while not conclusive, are accorded probative value by international tribunals.
Given the India-Pakistan mistrust, Siachen requires an innovative solution. First, it needs to be delinked from other entrenched disputes. Second, rather than aiming for a final settlement, Pakistan and India should agree on an interim solution, which primarily focuses on CBMs. In turn, not only will Siachen be resolved but its settlement can serve as a catalyst for resolving other disputes. Both countries should attempt to forge a bilateral treaty with international recognition, involvement and support which demilitarises the glacier and requires their militaries to withdraw combat troops from the glacier in their entirety with prohibition on both to unilaterally occupy the territory.
India has insisted that Pakistan agree to authenticating troop positions and demarcating the Actual Ground Position Line on the map before taking steps to demilitarise Siachen. It would help negotiations if they softened their stance. Likewise, Pakistan, which has been recalcitrant about its stance on demarcation according to internationally codified boundaries, should not make any claims to the region pending a final resolution.
This agreement can be further strengthened by the recognition of Siachen as a trans-boundary peace park, jointly administered by both countries as suggested by international scholars. The soldiers present at the glacier could be substituted by park rangers tasked with maintaining the area’s ecological system.
There is precedence for such agreements: trans-boundary peace parks have been successful in not only establishing peace but also facilitating goodwill and cooperation in countries with problematic borders. The Cordillera Reserve at the Peru-Ecuador border resolved a two-decade-long dispute between the two states over the rights to mineral resources. The reserve ended up defeating corporate interests and establishing a conservation park.
Similarly, the Sagarmatha International Peace Park between China and Nepal enabled mountaineers from around the world to gain access to Mount Everest, creating room for cooperative economic activity. Success of ventures such as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (US and Canada) and La Amistad National Park (Costa Rica and Panama) are examples of the efficacy of cooperative strategies in resolving such disputes.
The shared responsibility of caring for and protecting the environment and biodiversity of the troubled border would build the requisite level of trust, save hundreds of military lives and free billions of rupees better spent on sustainable development and fighting poverty in both states.
The writer is the author of International Law and Drone Strikes in Pakistan: The Legal and Socio-political Aspects.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2015