Meaningful Visit: The Take-Aways From The UN Secretary-General’s Trip To Pakistan
The United Nations Secretary General is the top administrative individual who presides over the UN Secretariat. The Secretariat is arguably the heart of the United Nations: its functions numerous; part managerial, part analytical and part logistical. The Secretary’s role extends from managing the Secretariat to administration of key UN organs, notably the General Assembly, Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. Last but certainly not least, the UN Secretary General acts as an ambassador of the UN, and collective conscience of this global forum regarding international peace, human rights and human development.
The role is unique, evolving largely from the United Nations Charter and tradition of the office. Past Secretaries General have had varying performances, some being staunch activists’ others decidedly reserved. To date there have been only nine people to occupy the post.
Antonio Guterres is currently Secretary General of the UN. His recent visit to Pakistan comes after a long gap, the last being in 2013 by his predecessor Ban Ki Moon. If we piece together his efforts and views reflected through his statements while in Pakistan, his priorities as peacemaker and global statesman are worth serious attention.
Any individuals who expected scathing criticism to come from the Secretary General should keep in mind that criticisms may have been saved for private meetings. By virtue of its mandate the office plays a diplomatic role. A character such as Guterres is no doubt aware of Pakistan’s political realities and history. Public praise of certain schemes is more likely to encourage the Pakistani establishment to act a certain way, but that what is left unsaid is a message in itself.
Speaking in a conference alongside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, Guterres commended Pakistan’s hospitality towards the Afghan refugees even as he praised their resilience and strength. Pakistan is home to around three million Afghan refugees, who have been coming to Pakistan as far back as 1979 Soviet Invasion. Recent conflicts, particularly the Afghanistan-US War, have exacerbated the situation and left a vast scar on Afghanistan as even now their repercussions are felt.
The acceptance and integration of refugees has been a hotly debated topic over the past five years. Even as recently as the Rohingya Crisis, there was the impression that only Western countries are affected by immigration and refugee influx. This is clearly not the case, Guterres believes. Pakistan, Lebanon and Sudan have a part that is as important as Germany, the US and France.
While the Secretary General Guterres chose to commend Pakistan on its hospitality to the Afghan refugees, the reality of Afghans living in Pakistan is complicated. Without belabouring the point, all is not well in paradise. The status of the Afghans in Pakistan is an issue which demands repeated consideration and action. Furthermore, debate on and consideration of the standards and practices outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention have still not been achieved. But what the Secretary General has effectively done is to include Pakistan as well as every other developing country in the conversation on refugees and refugees’ rights.
In 2018 the Prime Minister of Pakistan proposed in a public meeting that Afghans born in Pakistan be granted nationality, which is a humane approach towards the issue and in consonance with the best international practices. However, the proposal has not been discussed ever after. The Secretary General seems to certainly hope that the Prime Minister has not forgotten. Citizenship would entail the enjoyment of all those rights that the human rights movement vies for and which are part of his mission.
Guterres also spoke on Pakistan’s leadership on the issue of climate change, even planting a tree with Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The Secretary-General was appreciative of the tree planting campaign, colloquially called the “10 billion tree tsunami”, that the current government has undertaken.
Pakistan’s relationship with climate change is complex. According to reports by the World Resources Institute and University of Oxford, Pakistan contributes only about one percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Other middling economic and military powers have complained of double standards and biases when it comes to curbing production and therefore emissions. Pakistan’s willingness to step forward and lead a “middle-out” environmental revolution is a breath of fresh air.
This comes amid Pakistan’s economic woes and while some might see spending time and capital on green initiatives as squandering scarce resources, Pakistan has taken steps nonetheless. This includes a reduction in single-use plastics and the aforementioned campaign.
Hence, we might say that the Pakistani leadership has begun to realize that without significant action, glacier melting will cause worse floods. Heatwaves will continue to grow more life-threatening and crops will continue to fail. Pakistan is one of the countries that is highest at risk for climate-caused devastation. To echo Mr. Guterres, “like other developing countries, Pakistan has contributed little to the problem yet faces disproportionate vulnerability because of it.” A problem of this magnitude can only be tackled through collective action. Simply, in order to spur action, Pakistan must lead by example.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan makes it a point to speak about climate change, which shows a forward-thinking and pragmatic approach but also because it makes for non-objectionable virtue-signaling. He has also handpicked a Special Advisor to lead the charge on environmental issues. Despite lip-service, it remains to be seen how the government will overcome the perennial problems of water scarcity, pollution, desertification, biodiversity loss and an explosive growth in population.
Much has been said about the recent row between Pakistan and India as a result of India’s reneging on the UN mediated peace in Kashmir. It has been dissected through the lens of security, human rights, self-governance and everything in between. During a Press Conference a question was raised for Mr. Guterres on the crisis in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
The Secretary General simply recognizes the supremacy of international law, the importance of norms and full respect for human rights in Kashmir. India’s revocation of the special autonomous status of Kashmir is, for him, lamentable but not a point where there is no coming back from.
Guterres last stop was a visit to Kartarpur, a historic pilgrimage site for Sikhs, opened to citizens of India since the 9th of November 2019 by Pakistan’s Prime Minister. While standing amongst Pakistan’s Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims he said, “diversity is a blessing, a richness, not a threat.”
Taking a step back, Pakistan’s geopolitical responsibilities are worth further consideration. Given the political fragmentation and weak security in Afghanistan, Pakistan has a crucial role in stabilization given the relationship with India and Afghanistan. But Pakistan also has to begin seeing itself as a calming force in the region, and a normative leader for the decade to come – barring any more misadventures in the name of strategic depth.
It would be good for the international community as well as Pakistanis to reflect on the Secretary General’s words when he says “states must look at Pakistan through a wider lens.” For Pakistan has been long associated with terrorism, lawlessness, dictatorships and a poor standard of living. The Secretary General’s praise is a recognition that there are cracks in that hostile visage. Not only are his words meant to give credit, but also make the world take notice. With twin hopes in mind, first, for states to follow the positive example, second, for Pakistan to stay accountable to the image it makes such an effort to portray. Even more so, it is imperative upon Pakistan’s leadership to continue the positive trend of development, regard for human rights and peace.
Lastly, we cannot pretend that this visit and the specific the perception that Pakistan has cultivated over the course of this visit is simply a coincidence. On the contrary, it represents a greater whole to all of the lesser good deeds that are Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies. Indeed, perception is something that is often on the forefront of any state’s leadership. Considerations of optics are crucial.
And this has been the exact thing on the leadership’s mind over the past few months. Regardless, the outcomes of these four days surely don’t address the shortcomings of this government as a whole. It takes time for individuals, peoples and states to change and progress. Even so, this is good news. For years it was a mere hope that Pakistan would land on this side of the fence.
This visit can certainly be counted amongst diplomatic success for the Pakistan Foreign Office. The high-profile mission is the latest in a slew of those which have been invited to promote the diplomatic image of Pakistan. A decidedly soft power is being cultivated. It may not be all as rosy as it seems in the outset. And it is difficult to do that when everyday news shocks you back to domestic realities which are reminiscent of the unfriendly Pakistan. Repairing the economy is still a gigantic challenge. Selective accountability and justice are still largely practiced. There is still a lack of fundamental protections and freedoms for the most vulnerable members of society. All of these may be considered the growing pains of the new Pakistan. And these are the grand challenges to overcome this decade.
The writer is working with Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) Washington, DC and part of the South and South East Asia Action team. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Rights from the University of Minnesota. He has been part of Pakistan civil society’s UN treaty body reports. He can be reached at [email protected]