ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Saturday said that his country wants to live peacefully with India, but it is only possible if New Delhi walks back from its "extremist positions on Kashmir and on Islamophobia."
The Muslim-majority Himalayan region of Kashmir has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity since the partition of the British colony of India into the separate countries of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Both rule parts of the region but claim it in full and have fought two of their four wars over it.
In August 2019, New Delhi withdrew Indian-administered Kashmir’s autonomy in order to tighten its grip over the Himalayan territory, provoking outrage in Pakistan and the downgrading of diplomatic ties and suspension of bilateral trade.
Islamabad accuses India of attempting to change the demography of the Muslim majority region by issuing domiciles to outsiders, while at the same time denying them to the indigenous Kashmiri people.
Bhutto-Zardari said Islamabad wishes to peacefully coexist with its neighbours and resolve all outstanding issued, however, India's unilateral actions in 2019 had made the resolution of the Kashmir conflict "particularly difficult."
"They tried to unilaterally and illegally undermine the disputed status of this region and then pushing forward with converting the last area of Muslim majority within the region into a minority in their own land. These things are totally unacceptable for us," the Pakistani foreign minister said, in an interview with Al-Arabiya News Channel on the sidelines of the 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York.
"We like to be in a position to talk to India, to live peacefully with our neighbours to solve the Kashmir dispute, but we can only do so if India walks back [from] its extremist positions on Kashmir and on Islamophobia."
Bhutto-Zardari, who is also chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) council of foreign ministers, said Islamabad has significantly highlighted the topic at the annual OIC meeting and the OIC's Kashmir group meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA session.
Asked about the devastation caused by the recent floods in his country, the foreign minister described it as a disaster of "apocalyptic proportions."
By the time monstrous rains stopped at the end of August, he said, a hundred-kilometer-long lake had been formed in Pakistan, covering a third of the South Asian country's land mass.
The rains and subsequent deluges have affected 33 million people — one in every seven Pakistanis — including 16 million children and around 600,000 pregnant women, who are now waiting to give birth to their babies under the open sky, according to Bhutto-Zardari.
"This is a compounding tragedy because not only do we have to deal with initial impacts of the flooding, we are also staring at a potential health crisis, with waterborne diseases spreading at epidemic rate across the affected areas," he said.
"Then with more than 4 million acres of standing crop destroyed. We are potentially staring at a food security crisis and to top it all off, we just engaged with our agreement with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). We will be receiving our payment, looking forward to some economic breathing space."
Late last month, the IMF completed seventh and eighth reviews of the extended arrangement under the $6.5 billion program for Pakistan, clearing the way for immediate disbursement of $1.1 billion that brings total disbursements for budget support to the South Asian country to around $3.9 billion.
However, the Pakistani foreign minister said the figures that their deal was based on had also been washed away by the floods.
"So, we have a climate catastrophe, a natural disaster, a health emergency, a food insecurity crisis and potentially difficult economic times to come," he said.
Pakistani officials have blamed the devastation on human-driven climate change and say the South Asian country is unfairly bearing the consequences of irresponsible environmental practices elsewhere in the world.
About the plans for rehabilitation of affected people amid an economic crisis, Bhutto-Zardari said his country was seeking debt swaps to deal with the aftermath of this devastation.
"We are not going as far as to forgive our debts or something... we are just speaking about a couple of options. First of all, a moratorium on payments that are due at this very moment. Surely, the countries that we are indebted to, with going forward want their debts repaid and we want to be in a position to be able to do that," he said.
"We are also talking about supporting us with international financial institutions, particularly... with the risk of lending. And thirdly, a conversation that the UN secretary-general has been having for quite some time is about the concept of debt swap and spending that money instead of paying to the debtor country."
He said Pakistan would like to see a formula that would focus on greener projects and climate-resilient infrastructure, instead of the sustainable development goals (STGs).
"And many of the larger countries have this on their agenda now. So, this is the way where those carbon-producing countries, industrialized countries, because Pakistan produces 0.8 percent of the carbon footprint. But we are now one of ten most climate-stressed countries on the planet," the foreign minister said.
"So, we'd sort of like to trade our financial debt for larger countries' climate debt and instead of paying them back the current repayments directly to them, we could spend that same money directly on green infrastructure projects for our reconstruction and rehabilitation."
Pakistan is eighth on NGO Germanwatch's Global Climate Risk Index, a list of countries deemed most vulnerable to extreme weather caused by climate change, despite contributing less than 1 percent to global carbon emissions.