9 FEBRUARY 2016
Why Siachen must be demilitarised
The February 3 avalanche on the Siachen glacier that buried 10 Indian Army soldiers is a stark reminder to both India and Pakistan about the cost of military deployment in such inhospitable territory. The bodies of most soldiers of the 19 Madras Regiment are yet to be recovered from the post on the northern part of the glacier, at a height of 19,600 feet. This was not an isolated incident but part of a growing trend in that region, as global warming dramatically affects the glacier. Last month, four soldiers of 3 Ladakh Scouts were killed when an avalanche hit a patrol party in the Ladakh region, not very far from the site of the present tragedy. Avalanches are a threat not just to Indian soldiers, but also to the Pakistani troops. In April 2012, in the Gayari sector, 129 soldiers of the 6th Northern Light Infantry of the Pakistani military and 11 civilian contractors were buried by a massive avalanche. It is not just avalanches; the challenging terrain of the glacier and its surroundings as a whole have been regularly claiming lives. According to reliable estimates, over 2,000 soldiers from both sides have died on the Siachen glacier since 1984, when India beat Pakistan by a few days to occupy many of the strategic locations on the glacier.
Ever since the two militaries began a costly engagement on the glacier, there have been numerous efforts by both countries to find a way to demilitarise the glacier. In June 1989, they came very close to clinching a final deal. The two sides had agreed to "work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chance of conflict, avoidance of the use of force and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Shimla Agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area". Ever since then, India and Pakistan have tried diplomatically to find away to demilitarise the region. However, a lack of political will on both sides has meant that the status quo holds, and soldiers continue to pay a very high price in that remote snowy outpost. India has in the past suggested delineation of the Line of Control north of NJ 9842, redeployment of troops on both sides to agreed positions after demarcating their existing positions, a zone of disengagement, and a monitoring mechanism to maintain the peace. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi's personal initiative to visit Lahore on Christmas day and to push forward peace with Pakistan, it would only be the next logical step to look at the low-hanging fruits in bilateral issues to build trust. The demilitarisation of Siachen is definitely doable. This is not only because it is diplomatically possible, but also because there is a critical mass of opinion in both India and Pakistan that neither can sacrifice, or put in harm's way, so many lives on the inhospitable glacier. If the initiative is not seized by both sides now, the vagaries of nature will continue to exact a toll on forces deployed in Siachen, even if peace holds.
The curious case of Julian Assange
Personal liberty still eludes WikiLeaks founder and Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange, despite a ruling by a United Nations legal panel that has declared his confinement "arbitrary and illegal". The ruling of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention - the authoritative UN body that pronounces on illegal detentions based on binding and legal international instruments - has met with support, but not surprisingly, with a bitter backlash as well, notably from governments that have suffered incalculable damage from WikiLeaks' relentless exposures. Sweden and Britain have rejected the panel's findings outright, despite the fact that they are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the other treaties upon which the UN legal panel has based its recommendation. The same countries have in the past upheld rulings of the same panel on similar cases such as the ‘arbitrary detention' of the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed. The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has called the ruling "ridiculous", and dismissed the distinguished panel as comprising "lay people, not lawyers". As for the Swedish Prosecutor's Office, it has declared that the UN body's opinion "has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law". In other words, both countries argue that his confinement is not arbitrary but self-imposed, and he is at ‘liberty' to step out, be arrested, and face the consequences.
The specific allegation of rape that Mr. Assange faces in Sweden must be seen in the larger international political context of his confinement. He has made it clear he is not fleeing Swedish justice, offering repeatedly to give evidence to the Swedish authorities, with the caveat that he be questioned at his refuge in London, either in person or by webcam. While he will have to prove his innocence, Mr. Assange is not being paranoid when he talks of his fear of extradition to the U.S.: Chelsea Manning, whose damning Iraq revelations were first carried on WikiLeaks, was held in a long pre-trial detention and convicted to 35 years of imprisonment. The U.S. Department of Justice has confirmed on more than one occasion that there is a pending prosecution and Grand Jury against him and WikiLeaks. Mr. Assange's defence team argues that the Swedish police case is but a smokescreen for a larger political game plan centred on Washington, which is determined to root out whistle-blowers such as Mr. Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning for exposing dirty state secrets. It was WikiLeaks that carried the shocking video evidence of the wholesale collateral murder by the U.S.-led forces of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to thousands of pages of evidence of other violations of sovereignty and international law. By defying the UN panel's carefully considered recommendation that Mr. Assange be freed and awarded compensation, Britain and Sweden are damaging their own international standing. They must reverse their untenable stand and do what law and decency dictate by allowing Mr. Assange an opportunity to prove his innocence without fearing extradition to the United States.