On the side-lines of the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) organized a very interesting and engaging Side-event on the subject of 'Human Rights situation in South Asia'. A group of international experts presented their views and deliberated upon this topic and discussed the effects of infrastructural projects on human rights and climate change in the region. In order to illuminate the threat that infrastructural projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative pose to human rights in South Asia, as well as Ecology, and Climate Change, speakers deliberated upon these developments and their effects on human rights in South Asia and overall peace in the sub-continent. The event was moderated by Mr. Junaid Qureshi, Director EFSAS, and was attended by a large number of participants, including human rights activists, NGO representatives, Diplomats and researchers. The speakers included Madam Myra MacDonald - Former journalist and Reuters Bureau Chief for India I Author of books on contemporary South Asian security, Mr. Malaiz Daud - political analyst, formerly Chief of Staff of Afghanistan’s former President (Mr. Ashraf Ghani), Research Fellow at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and Research Fellow at EFSAS, Mr. Tim Foxley - Independent Researcher, EFSAS Research Fellow I formerly British Ministry of Defence, Swedish Ministry of Defence, SIPRI and RUSI.
Mr. Foxley initially outlined that the Taliban’s targeting of journalists and the NGO sector currently renders it extremely difficult to gain a clear understanding of what is happening within Afghanistan. It is evident, however, that the Taliban has managed to attain country-wide control and that political violence remains prevalent throughout the country. While groups such as the South Asian offshoot of ISIS, ISKP, and the National Resistance Front (NRF) have offered armed opposition to Taliban rule, Mr. Foxley assessed them as generally lacking the ability to overturn the Taliban government.
Within Afghanistan, he suggested, the humanitarian situation remains dire. Women have been once again excluded from public governance and public life, food insecurity has been exacerbated by draughts, and the general socio-economic development of the country under the Taliban has led to a further brain drain from Afghanistan. Mr. Foxley predicted that violence and instability will continue shaping Afghanistan for the foreseeable future as the Taliban refuses to deliver on their promises for inclusive governance and women’s rights.
The security situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Foxley contended, has been and will continue to be shaped by the policies of neighboring countries. China, Iran, and Russia stand to gain influence in the country. Regarding China, he suggested that Beijing seeks to profit from Afghan natural resources but pursues an overall cautious approach vis-à-vis the Taliban. As such, recent deals from the Chinese national petroleum company in Afghanistan are likely to heighten China’s exposure to attacks from groups such as ISKP. Chinese infrastructure investments have had negative environmental effects in other investment environments and will likely exacerbate pre-existing challenges in Afghanistan regarding noise, air, water, and soil pollution, deforestation, waste disposal issues, and limited access to alternative energies. Given that 80% of the Afghan population depend on agriculture, he highlighted, even minute environmental changes can produce severe ripple effects. The planned exploration of Afghan lithium deposits by Chinese firms will thus likely exacerbate the already volatile current situation.
Mr. Foxley concluded that almost two years following the fall of Kabul, there are little signs of improvement in terms of public governance. If the Taliban successfully manage access to development finance, for example from China, this might also insulate them against global diplomatic pressure and reduce their drive to gain international recognition.
Mr. Daud discussed the deep intertwinement between the Talban rise and the Pakistani security and intelligence apparatus, most notably the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). One of the first visitors to Kabul after August 2021, he highlighted, was the then-Chief of the ISI. Today, Afghan opposition founds itself between non-violent opposition elements that especially include women and more undemocratic violent forces such as the ISKP.
Mr. Daud discussed the Emergence of the Despotic Bloc led by China in the region of South Asia and cited the fall of liberal democracy in Afghanistan and the defeat of the West, the shape of regional support to Taliban from Pakistan and its security agencies, the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the struggling anocracy in Pakistan, the rich and ambitious Middle East countries and the resource-rich Central Asia as the reasons for the development of this anti-democratic Bloc.
Mr. Daud argued that the continuing contest over influence in Afghanistan and the growing role of China challenges Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that liberal democracy marks the final stage of political order. This raises broader questions surrounding the future of global order: will China build a NATO-like transnational alliance? How will Western countries respond and what are the future dynamics in the relations between democratic and autocratic systems?
He concluded by saying that fate of human rights rests on the outcome of the conflict between democracies and this burgeoning despotic bloc, especially in South Asia as it is encircled by this Pakistan’s ever waning democracy – and state for that matter, Taliban ruled Afghanistan and Sri Lanka’s turmoil.
Ms. MacDonald initially discussed her research focus on economic development in South Asia and the role of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in shaping political trends in Gilgit-Baltistan. Gilgit-Baltistan plays a key role in the CPEC both due to the Karakorum Highway linking China and Pakistan. However, Ms. MacDonald suggested, it must be questioned whether the Pakistani authorities really seek to prioritize economic development for the local population, which remains excluded from decision-making processes. Further, infrastructure development must be questioned in terms of whether it is used for resource extraction and geostrategic objectives or the genuine delivery of services to the local population.
One key development challenge is how to produce electricity for marginalized communities in developing economies. The Diamer-Bhasha Dam in Gilgit-Baltistan is likely to displace more than 30,000 locals, destroy cultural heritage in the region, and erode biodiversity. As such, the positive development effects of the dam have been called into question. Gilgit-Baltistan is also home to some of the largest glaciers in the world and massive infrastructure development will likely reshape the regional ecology in unpredictable ways, leading to flash floods and landslides in an already earthquake-prone region.
Gilgit-Baltistan, she outlined, is shaped by the history of the conflict between India and Pakistan after 1947 and the approach of the Pakistani State toward the region since then. The State, she argued, has used Gilgit-Baltistan for political leverage vis-à-vis India but simultaneously denied it provincial status, resulting in lacking representation of regional concerns and the Army shaping development processes in the region. Political decisions regarding Gilgit Baltistan are made elsewhere and in the pursuit of geostrategic objectives, which ultimately comes at the expense of improved livelihoods for locals in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The event was followed by a vibrant and thought-provoking Q&A session, during which the audience and speakers discussed numerous issues, including the future of peace in South Asia, the rise of terrorism, the need to strengthen democracy and State effectiveness in South Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, and the role of Pakistan's ISI in perpetrating terrorism as a State policy in the region.
Ms. MacDonald suggested that there is no obvious solution for the status of Gilgit-Baltistan as long as there is no easing of tensions between India and Pakistan. Any ‘true’ development in Gilgit-Baltistan, she argued, would focus on linking Gilgit-Baltistan with Ladakh in India, with which the region shares many cultural similarities. Gilgit-Baltistan’s position within Pakistan would be enhanced if it was given some political rights even if development decisions are still primarily made from Islamabad. She also highlighted that political solutions need to be future rather than past-oriented and must pragmatically focus on tackling the challenges of climate change.
Additionally, Mr. Foxley argued that the success of Chinese development approaches is likely to be limited due to the lack of investment in human capital and good governance. The China-Taliban relations, he concluded, raise the broader question as to how the international community will deal with the Taliban going forward.
Others who spoke at the event included the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN in Geneva, Dr. Nasir A. Andisha.