Pakistan, the only SAARC member state that hasn’t contributed to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund, has called for finalising modalities for using the fund and for placing it under the secretary general of the South Asian grouping

The functioning of the emergency fund figured in a telephone conversation on Tuesday between Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who said the facility should be placed under the secretary general of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The fund was created with an initial contribution of $10 million from India following a video conference of SAARC leaders on the COVID-19 pandemic that was called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 15. The fund has so far garnered commitments worth a total of $18.8 million.

Pakistan’s position on the fund was outlined in a Foreign Office readout of the conversation between Qureshi and his Bangladeshi counterpart, which said: “Discussing the need to share resources, it was underlined that SAARC COVID-19 emergency fund should be placed under the Secretary General of SAARC and the modalities for its utilization should be finalized through consultations at the earliest.”

The current secretary general of SAARC is veteran Sri Lankan diplomat Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, who recently succeeded Pakistan’s Amjad Hussain Sial.

There was no immediate reaction from Indian officials to Pakistan’s demand. Over the past few days, the external affairs ministry has accused Pakistan of politicising a humanitarian initiative such as the video conference of SAARC leaders on COVID-19.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was the only SAARC head of government who opted out of the video conference and the country was represented by its de facto health minister, who angered the external affairs ministry by raising the issue of Kashmir during the meeting.

During his phone conversation with the Bangladesh foreign minister, Qureshi “underscored that Pakistan considered SAARC an important platform for regional cooperation”. Qureshi also reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to the SAARC process and said Pakistan is ready to host a conference of health ministers of the member states to enhance cooperation on COVID-19.

Qureshi proposed a video conference could be organised first and Momen “conveyed Bangladesh’s readiness to participate in the video conference”, according to the Pakistani readout.

Qureshi also suggested SAARC should evaluate and coordinate on the economic and social disruption caused by COVID-19 and experts from member states should commence work in this regard immediately.

The Indian prime minister had already mooted such an initiative during the March 15 video conference. Modi had suggested brainstorming by experts on the long-term economic consequences of COVID-19 and ways to insulate internal trade and local value chains from its impact.

The external affairs ministry has also announced that a video conference of senior health professionals of SAARC states will be held on March 26.

A person familiar with developments, who declined to be named, said: “Pakistan hasn’t done anything to contribute to the fund and is only taking steps that are coming in the way of meaningful cooperation within the SAARC framework. This isn’t new and it isn’t surprising.”

The Dawn newspaper quoted an unnamed Pakistani diplomat as saying that the country is “expected to make a pledge” to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund “but after clarity about the fund was achieved”.

In recent days, Qureshi has held phone conversations with his counterparts from Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh. Though he had said he would be speaking to foreign ministers of all SAARC states, he is yet to call his Indian and Afghan counterparts.