ISLAMABAD: US senators, while expressing deep concern over grave human rights violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK), on Monday asked New Delhi to be transparent on the current situation in the disputed territory.
Democrats Christopher J Van Hollen and Margaret C Hassan also praised Pakistan for giving them and the UN military observers unfettered access to Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
They were allowed to visit Muzaffarabad on Sunday by the Pakistani authorities in order to give them the first-hand account of the ground situation.
The visit happened just days after Senator Hollen, who flew from New Delhi, was denied permission by the Indian government to visit occupied Kashmir.
But in Pakistan, both the senators were not only given full access to AJK, but also had a full range of meetings. They met Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and also the leadership of AJK.
Speaking to The Express Tribune at the US embassy, Senator Hollen and Senator Hassan voiced their ‘deep concern’ over the human rights situation in Indian Occupied Kashmir.
“That’s why I made the request. I think it’s really important that we get the facts. I’d hoped to visit Jammu and Kashmir (Indian Occupied Kashmir) in order to gather more facts and find out what was going on,” Hollen said when asked as to why he wanted to travel to the disputed territory.
“I have deep concern about the human rights situation in [occupied] Kashmir and while we would all like to find a way to address the underline issues in Kashmir, the immediate concern is the question of restoring full communications, release of political prisoners, detainees and indeed the curfew,” he stressed.
Both the Democrats were impressed with Pakistan’s openness and transparency regarding the issue of Kashmir.
Senator Hollen said they were told that United Nations Military Observers Group had full ‘freedom to investigate any incident wherever it happens’ in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
“Whereas reportedly on the Indian side, UN observers are potentially confined to Srinagar, their offices in the area do not have the freedom to investigate,” he noted.
Senator Hassan, who is scheduled to visit New Delhi next, said she would seek Indian government’s response on the issue of limited access being given to the UN observers.
“I would urge more transparency and access for the UN observers,” she said.
When asked whether the UN Security Council could play a role on the issue of Kashmir, Senator Hollen said the Security Council ‘remains an option’ provided all members gave their consent to the proposal.
He said the UN Security Council did take up the issue of Kashmir in the aftermath of India’s decision to strip disputed Kashmir region of its special status. The United States supported that proposal which was moved by China, he said.
“I think it’s important that the government of India recognise that the UN Security Council remains an option for the international community to seek actions on human rights issues,” he said.
However, he added that both Pakistan and India had to talk to each other to resolve the overall dispute.
“The United States should always be ready to facilitate discussions between the two governments.”
He said the most immediate concern was the human rights situation. He added that the Indian government had not really explained “how they gonna get from the situation today to some normalcy, but we would like them address” human rights issues immediately”.
Senator Hassan echoed his sentiments and said the United Nations certainly had a role to play. But she stressed that the immediate concern for the US was to ensure lifting of curfew, release of political prisoners and detainees.
“We will continue to pressure the Indian government in the ways we can,” she said.
Both senators acknowledged that in the current situation there had always been a risk of miscalculation from either side.
“There is always a danger of miscalculation. Any time you have a conflict, there is a risk of escalation. I believe that Prime Minister [Imran] Khan understands there is a risk and he has been doing his best to de-escalate the situation,” Senator Hollen said.
He stressed that the continued conflict between Pakistan and India did not serve any body’s interests.
Senator Hassan mentioned that the AJK leadership told them that they had been trying hard to encourage restraint.
“But there is always a risk that one side or the other misinterpret something, so I think it is extremely important to find ways forward so that Pakistan and India can try to address these issues, talk with each other and find a way forward for better relationship,” she noted.
However, she acknowledged that at present the situation there were slim chances of any substantive direct communication between the two capitals.
“But, I certainly think if there could be efforts as we have called on the Indian government to do towards alleviating some of the situation in [occupied] Jammu and Kashmir that might provide an opening to have further discussions,” she said in what appears to be an endorsement of Pakistan’s stance that India needed to ease restrictions on Kashmiris before any bilateral engagement.
Both the senators also discussed Afghanistan with Pakistani authorities with particular focus on efforts regarding the resumption of peace process, suspended last month by President Trump.
Senator Hollen said it was important that any agreement between the US and the Taliban should include a ceasefire or an arrangement that must reduce the level of violence.
On bilateral relations, Senator Hollen and Senator Hassan said there was great potential in improvement of trade between Pakistan and the US.
They also noted that the US certainly wants to have a broad-based relationship with Pakistan beyond the security cooperation.