Conflict resolution is a term thrown around liberally in the corridors of power of international institutions such as the UN. Are organizations such as the UN effectively positioned to mediate between historic rivals such as India and Pakistan? Are bilateral frameworks the best roadmaps to peace? Alternatively, are third-party mediators the most effective in achieving peace between two hostile nations? The purpose of this article is to explain how Canada can act as a bridge-builder between the two South Asian behemoths through the avenue of third-party mediation. 

Canada’s image as a peacenik in the global arena allows it to be better placed to deploy conflict resolution mechanisms between India and Pakistan. There are 3 ways by which Canada emphasized its willingness to become a force of peace and cooperation on the international stage. Firstly, Canada organized the South China Sea working group along with Indonesia in the 1980s. This is ever relevant in the context of this paper due to the role of China in South Asia, as Canada and China can work together to reduce tensions in the continent. Secondly, in 1995 Canada chaired the Working Group on Refugees in the Palestine and Israel conflict. This once again signifies Canada’s mediatory role in complex and significant conflict zones in the geopolitical realm. Lastly, Canada also monitored the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT which had a significant impact on its relations with both India and Pakistan especially after both countries officially declared themselves to be nuclear weapons states.

Firstly, the South China Sea working group was set up in the 1990s by Canada and Indonesia with an aim to enhance cooperation between the countries involved in the South China Sea maritime dispute. These countries included Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The strategy employed by Canada and Indonesia through this working group was one of informal meetings between government officials between the relevant nations. The fact that these meetings were not formalized helped in reducing pressure on the participants of the working group as they were able to work in a less constrained capacity. The goal for this working group was to enhance cooperation between the South China Sea countries in areas such as the environment and maritime navigation. While it can be argued that the South China Sea dispute has not been resolved, it is also true that the dispute has not yet exploded into an armed conflict between the countries involved. This can be seen as a major victory for the working group since the rise of China has only made confrontations between it and the other East Asian countries more likely and the fact that a tenuous peace has remained is a testament to Canada and Indonesia’s effectiveness as international mediators. 

Secondly, Canada’s position as chair of the Working Group on Refugees in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict greatly increased its geopolitical clout as a force of peace. The working group, while working mostly outside of the public eye, greatly increased the goodwill it received from segments of the Palestinian population. While this supports the argument that Canada has historically had a role in international peace processes, the effectiveness of this venture is yet to be determined. The Harper government in 2006 employed a pro-Israel policy in the context of the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006. As a result, Canada’s ability to influence the ground realities in Palestine diminished substantially since the earlier goodwill they received due to their role as Chair of the Refugee Working Group was overshadowed by their partisan approach to the conflict in 2006. Even so, Canada remains as one of the better positioned nations to be able to indulge in conflict resolution exercises primarily because of its experience in the realm.

Lastly, Canada’s prominent role in the NPT is a major reason as to why they could be effective in bringing about peace in South Asia. The main reason for this is that Canada approached India and Pakistan through the same lens after they both declared themselves to be nuclear weapons states. This type of equivalence espoused by Canada was also seen through the Canadian led McNaughton proposals in 1949 which India rejected precisely due to it being equated with Pakistan. A long-standing gripe of Pakistan has been that the world community gives more political leeway to India due to their size and role as a huge market for Western companies. By not going down this route, Canada gained a significant amount of political capital in Islamabad thereby allowing them to be better placed to mediate between India and Pakistan as opposed to other Western nations such as the United States.

Canada’s historic relations with both India and Pakistan must be analyzed to explain why Canada has a role specifically in Indo-Pak mediation. Firstly, due to Canada, India and Pakistan all being a part of the Commonwealth, these historic linkages would allow Canada to make more effective inroads into the political spheres of both Islamabad and New Delhi as opposed to a nation that had no connection to the region. The downside to this fact is that anti-colonial sentiment in South Asia may make Canada come across as foreign power meddling in the internal affairs of India and Pakistan. However, since the US has absorbed most of that ire both from the public eye and the ruling government officials, Canada is able to use this lack of mistrust as a tool to bring the two nations to the negotiating table. Moreover, current Prime Minister Trudeau’s desire to make Canada a more global player fits well with the argument of it being a potential integral part of the India-Pakistan peace process.

In the years following India’s nuclear tests, the bilateral relationship between Canada and India, while severely diminished, slowly returned to one of close cooperation partly due to fears that US support to Pakistan during the Cold War would upset the balance of power in South Asia. While it is usually assumed that Canada follows in the footsteps of the US, this specific case proves that is not always true. Canada does indeed have an independent foreign policy in areas which impact it directly such as its relations with India. 

Prior to Pakistan becoming a Nuclear Weapons state, its relations with Canada were characterized through stability, cooperation and development assistance as envisioned through the Colombo Plan. Although cooperation was present during this time, the depth of the bilateral partnership was limited since it was viewed through the overall prism of the Asian Pacific region rather than through a comprehensive nation to nation bilateral framework. Since India conducted their first nuclear tests in 1974, the asymmetrical power balance between India and Pakistan before 1998 was helpful in forming Canada’s foreign policy since it is easier to resolve conflicts in such power configurations as was seen in the 1971 war in East Pakistan.

However, after the Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998, relations took a severe downturn akin to Canada’s ties with India. While this reflected a downgrade in relations between Canada and Pakistan, the silver lining here from the perspective of Pakistani policymakers was that Canada was then forced to indulge in peaceful nuclear cooperation with the former. This can be explained by the idea that once a nation develops nuclear weapons, it is looked at through the global lens rather than regional due to the potential for nuclear conflict. Since the gap in power between India and Pakistan was narrowed greatly after 1998, Canada looked at South Asia with renewed urgency as a more symmetrical balance of power would make conflict resolution harder to achieve. In a situation where there are two non-NPT nuclear weapons states with a decreased chance of conflict resolution, mediation and nuclear cooperation is even more required.

In conclusion, peace in South Asia in the context of Indian-Pakistani relations would be best achieved through third-party mediation rather than international institutions or bilateral frameworks since the former are ineffective and the latter is not conducive due to the current tensions and trust deficit. Using the guiding hand of Canada as a mediator, Pakistan and India may be able to find more common ground than either had previously anticipated. Canada’s strong and transparent relations with both countries allow it to be better positioned to engage in conflict resolution mechanisms as opposed to other Western nations.