Our nation has started embracing Naya Pakistan but the agent of change is still shying away from painting it on the global canvas. By opting to stay in Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan has missed the golden opportunity of sharing his vision during the United Nations General Assembly Session.
With his charming personality and impressive maiden over, Imran Khan can build up his image as a statesman and also change international perception regarding Pakistan. So, what message has our government sent to the world by deciding to send the foreign minister as an opener?
The pretext of the so-called ‘situation in the country’ does not sit well. Practically, Pakistan is not at war anymore. Yes, under mountains of debt, the country needs to tighten its belt but that should only be done intelligently. The PM is right to primarily focus on the domestic agenda, including our ailing economy, but for that he has already laid the foundation. The centre along with three provincial governments is fully functional. His trusted economy guru, Asad Umar, is at the helm of the exchequer to fix the mother of all problems. And, by miraculously winning the presidency, he has also sealed the great-grab. Above all, Imran Khan has had enough time to settle in and watch the administrative wheel moving in the right direction.
Dropping the visit in the name of an ‘austerity drive’ is equally fanciful. Let’s weigh the austerity argument by simple mathematics. Had our prime minister preferred to attend the UNGA with a ten-member delegation for six days, the travel cost in business class would have been around 2.5 million rupees. Four hundred dollars a night Roosevelt Hotel would have cost another three million. Let’s further add 2.5 million on dinning and other expenses. So the whole visit would have cost the exchequer between eight and ten million rupees. This figure is still far less than the amount lavishly spent during previous years.
Every leader coming to the UNGA brings his/her own agenda. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is flying in to shed light on the tense regional situation. Saudi Arabia is expected to defend its destructive war on Yemen and highlight its latest reforms. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will focus on Syria and avail the chance of meeting his American counterpart. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eying on meeting President Trump to influence the US-Korean policy. The Chinese FM is longing to quell Western reservations on OBOR while the Iranian representative will likely blame Washington for unilaterally breaking the nuclear deal. Indian FM Sushma Swaraj and her Afghan counterpart intend to talk about terror incidents. In this, Prime Minister Imran Khan could offer a lot; an olive branch to some and befitting replies to others.
In addition to attending the UNGA, the leaders normally meet eight to ten dignitaries including two to three prime ministers/presidents and a couple of foreign ministers. Meetings with such dignitaries could have been arranged by the good offices of our permanent representative to the UN. To clear the air, the Foreign Office and our embassy in Washington could coordinate with US officials to arrange a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence if not the American president himself.
Let’s do another simple calculation. If our prime minister tours Washington on an official trip for three days, it will cost the treasury almost half the amount spent on any UNGA visit. So one can imagine how much it will burden taxpayers if the PM later visits Ankara, Riyadh, Tehran, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, Delhi and Kabul.
There are a number of countries that don’t have good trade or strategic relations with Pakistan but forging ties with them help our country secure coveted posts in top UN bodies. Only last year, Pakistan was elected to the UN Human Rights Council by securing more than two thirds of the vote. That milestone was achieved with the help of African, Caribbean and Eastern European countries that hardly ever come into the limelight. The UN mission would have further strengthened if leaders of such countries were invited over a working lunch with PM Khan.
There is no hard and fast rule that a head of state should address the UN Assembly. Pakistan’s spell at the UN started in 1948. The then foreign minister, Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, was the first to represent Pakistan since PM Liaquat Ali Khan was busy picking up the pieces to build the country. During the later tumultuous political years, the domestic situation hardly permitted any leader to focus on the UN as some of them didn’t even get a good chance to address their own constituencies. Presidents Ayub and Yahya did grace the sessions but PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto avoided addressing the very house he had famously walked out from as foreign minister over the fall of Dhaka. Ziaul Haq initially avoided but in later years did make a speech at the UN. Benazir Bhutto ushered in a new era of democracy after an arduous struggle against dictatorship. Even she preferred to send the FM – a policy blindly followed by her successor, Nawaz Sharif.
But from 1995, almost all of our prime ministers or presidents repeatedly honoured this international platform. From the same period, only six times, Pakistan was not represented by a head of state or government.
Over the years, our leaders have learnt the importance of representing the country at the UN. One wonders if sending FM Qureishi to the 73rd session will give an impression of change. Instead of a new beginning, it is merely be a reincarnation of the man who had represented Pakistan there nine years ago. As far as the cost is concerned, there won’t be much difference if the premier had assumed the role.
The man called the ‘butcher of Gujarat’, who also won an election in the name of hope, proudly presented himself to the UN. Since then, he is no more ‘Monster Modi’ in that part of the world. The Indian prime minister knows that there is no need to visit New York as a ritual so he is sending his foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, instead.
Every eye is on Imran Khan’s first foreign trip. As of now, a number of envoys have presented him with invitation letters from their heads of state. But, his self-imposed embargo on foreign trips is coming in the way. The greatest advantage of first visiting the United Nations is that it shows neutrality. Going to the UNGA is not a visit to Washington.
Mr Prime Minister, you have your own reasons to stay back, but this decision will only make us miss some much-needed positive news and perceptions about Pakistan.
The writer is a senior journalist associated with Geo News.