Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj arrived in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, on Tuesday, to represent India at the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting organised by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a grouping of Central Asian Republics led by China and Russia.
The 10-member meet, which will serve as the plastform to discuss several pressing issues in the region, such as terrorism, marks the first such summit after the Pulwama and Balakot attacks earlier this year, and Swaraj’s last time representing the nation before poll counting begins.
The summit will be held on May 21-22, and is expected to address the terror attack in Sri Lanka that left 253 dead, and was claimed by the Islamic State; repercussions of the ongoing and expanding trade war between China and the US; the impending energy shock in the wake of sanctions on Iran and trade waiver suspension for chief importers including India and China; and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, among others.
Swaraj’s itinerary at Bishkek
Swaraj will conduct parallel parleys with other foreign ministers on matters related to national and international security. Last month, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman attended the SCO’s defence ministers’ conclave in Bishkek.
The Ministry of External Affairs said in an official press release that the Foreign Minister-level meeting will review preparation for the forthcoming SCO summit in Bishkek on June 13-14.
Swaraj’s programme at Bishkek “will include the meeting of Council of SCO Foreign Ministers and a joint call of SCO Foreign Ministers on Kyrgyz President Sooranbay Jeenbekov,” the statement said.
“The CFM meeting in Bishkek will…also exchange views on topical issues of international and regional importance,” it added.
Swaraj may also run into her Pakistani counterpart Mehmood Qureshi at the summit, but it remains to be seen if the SCO forum will provide an opportunity for both countries to explore the possibility of future peace talks.
History of the SCO
The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance formed in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Charter, formally establishing the organisation, was signed in 2002 and took effect in 2003.
The SCO is often seen in the international diplomatic community as the easter counterweight to the NATO, with whom Russia has strained ties.
In 2017, the organisation expanded its membership to include India and Pakistan. This marked marked a watershed moment in the evolution of a grouping that originally began as the “Shanghai Five” in 1996.
The Heads of State Council (HSC) is the supreme decision-making body in the SCO, meeting once a year to adopt decisions and guidelines. Chinese premier Xi Jinping and Indian PM Narendra Modi are members of the HSC which is scheduled to meet next month.
The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is another permanent organ of the SCO which serves to promote cooperation of member states against the three evils of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. India and Pakistan have also engaged in many of its multilateral military exercises.
Commitments and significance
Military drills are conducted among members to promote multilateral cooperation, intelligence sharing & coordination against terrorism as well as other external threats, and to maintain regional peace & stability.
The SCO has committed itself to fight cross-border drug crimes and cyber warfare under the counter-terrorism rubric; The Diplomat reported in 2017 that SCO has foiled 600 terror plots and extradited 500 terrorists through RATS.
Regarded as the “strategic alliance of the East,” the SCO has even been touted as the eastern counterweight to NATO, with its larger geographic and demographic reach covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent and nearly half of the human population.
Other organisations like ASEAN and the United Nations are invited to attend the talks, along with neighbouring countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Nepal as observer states or dialogue partners.
Will SCO address its members’ human rights violations?
The ongoing summit begins within days that the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) released a damning report alleging violations and torture in the militancy-hit Jammu and Kashmir. The report listed 76 cases of torture and killings of civilians, including 13 incidents in 2018 alone. The 2018 cases included eight civilian killings allegedly by security forces, and five killings of civilians allegedly by militants.
Following the revelations, India rejected the findings and calling it “a closed chapter,” refused to engage in any further communication over it. China too has rubbished all allegations against the growing internment of minority Uighur Muslims, despite satellite images suggesting otherwise. Many other SCO member nations like Russia and Pakistan are involved in human rights violations chiefly against activists, journalists, and the LGBT community.
Interestingly, one criticism of the SCO is that the forum is used by member states to shield each other from international criticism regarding human rights violations.
But the June summit may see Narendra Modi, if re-elected as PM, engaging with Pakistani PM Imran Khan, on the sidelines of the event, for the first time since Khan was elected Pakistan’s prime minister in July last year and peace talks were called off after repeated conflicts between the army and separatists in the Valley.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.