ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Wednesday boycotted the virtual conference of trade officials from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), saying such meetings could only be effective if spearheaded by the group’s secretariat instead of India.
The meeting of trade officials from eight-member SAARC was convened to discuss the impact of COVID-19 in the region and how the forum could come up with a common strategy.
The video conference was a follow up of a summit-level interaction held on March 15 to discuss the fallout of coronavirus. Pakistan attended the conference but only at the ministerial level in what seemed to be calculated move to preempt Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to portray himself a leader spearheading the fight against coronavirus.
Dr Zafar Mirza, who attended the conference, raised the continued lockdown in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJ&K) and sought the easing of restrictions to allow Kashmiris to access healthcare amid the pandemic.
Pakistan has since been insisting that any regional effort to fight the virus has to be spearheaded by the SAARC secretariat based in Nepal.
But, India continued to take the centre stage and tried to give impression that it was leading the effort.
It was because of this reason Pakistan pulled out of the virtual conference, once again highlighting the tensions between the two neighbours.
A statement issued by the Foreign Office on Wednesday gave a detailed explanation as to why it opted out of the conference.
“Being a founding member, Pakistan believed that SAARC provides an important platform for regional cooperation,” the statement read.
“The role of the secretariat assumes further salience in emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and its wider social and economic fallout,” it said.
The statement said as, in the case of other regional and international organisations, the SAARC secretariat also provides the requisite convening platform, institutional framework and support structure for essential coordination and follow-up.
“Activities such as today’s trade officials’ video conference could only be effective if spearheaded by the SAARC secretariat. Since the secretariat was not part of today’s video conference, Pakistan chose not to participate,” Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui explained.
She said for the SAARC process to move forward, its secretariat must be enabled to play its due role in any event or activity being organised under the SAARC auspices.
“At a time when the region is facing unprecedented challenges, all the available institutional frameworks must be optimally utilised,” she added.