The Ministry of External Affairs has said that the invitation to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to address the Inaugural Plenary of the 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is a “welcome recognition of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and of India’s contribution to the Islamic world”.
The meeting will be held in Abu Dhabi on March 1 and 2, for which Swaraj has been invited by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the “Guest of Honour”.
Why the OIC matters
The OIC — formerly Organisation of Islamic Conference — is the second largest inter-governmental organisation in the world after the UN, with a membership of 57 states in four continents. The OIC describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world”, and its stated objective is “to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world”.
The OIC has reserved its membership for Muslim-majority countries. Russia, Thailand, and couple of other small countries have Observer status. At the 45th session of the Foreign Ministers’ Summit in May 2018, Bangladesh, the host country, had suggested that India, where more than 10% of the world’s Muslims live, should be given Observer status, but Pakistan had opposed the proposal.
Improved ties with UAE, Saudi
The first-time invitation to India to be a Guest of Honour at the Plenary, especially at a time of heightened tensions with Pakistan following the Pulwama terrorist attack, is a significant diplomatic victory for New Delhi.
The MEA said in its statement Saturday that the invitation indicated “the desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level” and a “milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE”.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was a very special Chief Guest at the 68th Republic Day celebrations in 2017, the first time that India laid out the Republic Day red carpet for a leader who was neither a Head of State nor Head of Government.
The Crown Prince, an extremely popular leader across the Middle East who is often known by his initials MBZ, had earlier visited India in February 2016, following a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UAE in August 2015.
It is also significant that the invitation to the OIC Foreign Ministers’ meet has come days after the visit to India of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. The invite may be an important outcome of the MBS visit, apart from being an indication of New Delhi’s improved ties with both Saudi and the UAE, and the Gulf region as a whole.
OIC has been pro-Pak on J&K
The OIC has been generally supportive of Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir, and has issued statements criticising the alleged Indian “atrocities” in the state. As recently as in December 2018, the OIC General Secretariat “expressed strong condemnation of the killing of innocent Kashmiris by Indian forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir”, describing the “direct shooting at demonstrators” as a “terrorist act”, and “called upon the international community to play its role in order to reach a just and lasting solution to the conflict in Kashmir”.
This statement had come soon after Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced that he had contacted the OIC Secretary General “to apprise him about the latest situation in occupied Kashmir and Pakistan’s desire for convening of the meeting of the member states in Islamabad”. Dr Yousef Ahmed Al-Othaimeen of Saudi Arabia has been the OIC Secretary General since November 2016.
The 2017 session of the Council of OIC Foreign Ministers had adopted a resolution “reaffirming the unwavering support… for the Kashmiri people in their just cause”, “expressing deep concern at atrocious human rights violations being committed by the Indian occupation forces… since 1947”, and “paying rich tribute to the valiant people of IoK who… continue to wage heroic struggle”.
At the 2018 meeting in Dhaka, however, “Jammu and Kashmir” figured in only one of the 39 resolutions adopted, that too, along with 12 other states or regions worldwide. Pakistan had complained about the Dhaka Declaration, and accused Bangladesh of circulating the text very late.
A new India-Pak tussle is expected
Indeed, India has excellent relations individually with almost all member nations of the OIC — this is a reason why it can at times afford to not take the statements issued by the group as a whole seriously. That said, and despite the invitation to Swaraj — who can be expected to bring up the terrorist attacks in India in her address — it is important to watch what line the OIC takes on Jammu and Kashmir in its final declaration, which is likely to be issued at the end of the summit on March 2.
A report by the official Emirates News Agency on Saturday said the Abu Dhabi meeting would discuss “issues regarding peace and stability in the Muslim world”, and that “the Council of Foreign Ministers is considering supporting initiatives to promote peace and security, counter extremism, combat the exploitation of religion and hate speech by inculcating the values of moderation and tolerance”. The report described India as a “friendly country” of “great global political stature”.
It is certain that Pakistan would be making every effort to counter the snub delivered to it by the OIC, and is likely to have already begun behind-the-scenes negotiations for a statement on Kashmir, perhaps using last year’s report of the United Nations Human Rights Office that criticised India.
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