| Pakistan high commissioner to India Aziz Ahmed Khan with his wife at Golconda Fort in Hyderabad on Friday. (PTI)
Washington, Jan. 29: In a major setback to the idea that India and Pakistan will settle their disputes bilaterally, the World Bank yesterday accepted 'a set of documents' from Islamabad in support of its request for appointing a 'neutral expert' to consider its quarrel with Delhi on the implementation of the Indus Waters Treaty.
The World Bank will now determine as 'a first step' whether India and Pakistan could resolve their simmering dispute through the Permanent Indus Commission, failing which it will call for a neutral expert, 'to be appointed by the two countries, or by a third party agreed upon by the two countries'.
If Delhi and Islamabad cannot agree on the choice of such an expert or the means for choosing one, the World Bank will decide on its own to appoint a neutral expert.
As a final step, if the dispute remains unresolved, the World Bank, in consultation with the UN secretary-general, will proceed to select three judges while creating a seven-person Court of Arbitration. India and Pakistan will choose two judges each as members of such a court.
The World Bank's decision yesterday in receiving the documents from Pakistan poses the biggest challenge yet to the UPA government's foreign policy.
It also calls into question the peace process with Pakistan which was revived by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a speech in Srinagar in April 2003, a process which the UPA government decided to continue.
This will be the first time since India and Pakistan signed the Simla Agreement in 1972 that Islamabad would be successful in injecting a third party into a bilateral dispute with Delhi, although successive governments, civilian and military, have attempted unsuccessfully to deviate from bilateralism in relations between the two countries.
On August 25, 1999, in the volatile backdrop of the Kargil conflict, Islamabad complained to the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan that India had shot down a Pakistani military plane over Gujarat and five days later it took the dispute to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. On June 21, 2001, the ICJ dismissed the case.
Earlier, Pakistan had made several futile attempts at the UN Human Rights Commission to introduce the Kashmir issue and in the UN General Assembly to revive the dispute with India. All those attempts were unsuccessful.
Since India went to the UN soon after Independence, the only major instance of third party involvement in its quarrels with Pakistan ' other than the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 ' was in Tashkent in January 1966 when the Soviets mediated between the two governments.
India does not yet seem to have put together a cogent response to Pakistan's allegation that construction of the Baglihar dam violates the 1960 treaty.
South Block's response has been mild, merely asserting that 'we do not believe that the reference to the World Bank is justified'. It is hoping that 'through continued technical discussions, further convergence would be promoted' between the water resources secretaries of the two governments.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has been hyperactive on the diplomatic front here to ensure that this major effort in US President George W. Bush's second term to take a dispute with India to a multilateral forum is well defended.
On Wednesday, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Jehangir Karamat, met World Bank president James Wolfensohn and pressed Islamabad's case for third party intervention in the dispute.
According to Pakistani sources here, Karamat despaired that his country had exhausted all means for directly settling the dispute with India and insisted that the treaty does not require an arbitration request to be jointly made by the two countries.
The World Bank had earlier shown some reluctance to get involved in the problem. Its lead counsel of the International Law Group, Salman Salman, cautioned recently that any reference of the issue to the World Bank for arbitration could open a Pandora's Box.
Significantly, Salman's presentation has now been taken off the World Bank's website.