Interview with Ambassador of Pakistan to the EU Assad Mayeed Khan
Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) On October 28 came out the report on Post-Disaster Needs assessment made up with the help of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Union (EU), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank, following the Flood disaster last August that thoroughly disorganized the daily life in this Islamic Republic in South Asia, counting some 225 million of inhabitants. Flood Damages and Economic Losses are estimated to be over USD 30 billion and Reconstruction Needs Over USD 16 billion.
A bit before that Brussels Morning met with the new Ambassador of Pakistan to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg, HE Assad Mayeed Khan, an experienced career diplomat who reflected for us on his long career as a professional diplomat and on the challenges ahead for his country and its relations with the EU.
Is this your first assignment as a diplomat in Europe?
I would say when looking back at my career you would see the first half was in Japan and the second half was all the time in the United States. When looking at the style and how societies of these 2 countries function you cannot think of two more different societies. It meant for me moving from one country where protocol and procedure is the substance to another country which is the centre of the world and where the movers and shakers of the world are present, the number one power of the world. So for me that transition from one style of society to a completely different country was a great learning experience.
Where did you find yourself at your best?
I would find that very hard to answer and it is interesting also for me as well. I found myself very comfortable both in Japan and in the US, although these countries are very different. As a diplomat your first assignment, where you get your training on the field, where you spent your time as a student is a place that you remain romantically attached to the whole rest of your life. So my association with Japan is not just professional but it is also personal and very emotional as well. The link with the USA is less emotional and more professional and it is the place where I discovered myself as a professional. I was put in quite challenging situations during my time at the UN in New York.
The experience in the USA can be split in 2 equal halves. One is my Unrelated work. I was very privileged to be associated with some very important processes and to see multilateral diplomacy at work: how 193 countries come together and present their views on the same subject in different ways. It is to be part of a number of intergovernmental negotiations because in the UN a small country and a big power have the same bid . But then, afterwards to come to a place, Washington, where you could actually feel the bid of your interlocutor in the bilateral context offered the occasion to taste from another complicated and difficult tradition.
The UN encounters criticism these days of powerlessness and competition from other intergovernmental institutions set up under impulse of e.g. China?
I think the UN still is the best option available for the whole world to basically peacefully resolve the issues, challenges and conflicts in the world and also to deal with transboundary problems and challenges. To work together at one platform in terms of setting the norms. So the UN role as a peacemaker, as a peacebuilder and a global norm setter remains crucial. When looking at the UN and then comparing it to all other alternatives I would say it is still our best hope in terms of allowing multilateralism to work and allowing countries to basically to get to a common point by conceding space to the others, by respecting the other and its principles.
Having said that, obviously each time that there is a conflict or a situation which involves the big players, this generates a lot of pressure and puts a lot of stress on the system. That’s the test, if one looks at post-war history and also to the last 75 years, the UN actually has gone through. There are some structural issues of course, the question of veto, the question of the reform of the Security Council, a question that has been on the agenda of the UN since the beginning. And then if you hear those who are seeking that power also they sound very convincing but then you have the counterpoint also that is very persuasive.
Is the main flaw not the imbalance in representation of the different continents, does it need more presence of Asia eg…?
I think the moment you go into that direction the African continent also stands up and says they are one large part of the world, how and why is it that they have not a voice or sufficient representation? And then when it comes to Asia, the question is also if Japan needs to be included and if so, then the Koreans stand up and they want it as well. While if India wants it then we from Pakistan would say we are also the fifth largest country in the world and a nuclear power. There are claims, there are counterclaims…
I really think the UN is still our best hope and it is still an equalizer and that multilateral window is something that we must not allow to be closed because sometimes a good solution is the one which is not liked by anyone.
What should western diplomats learn from diplomaties as yours?
Obviously I would say this may not be a good comparison to make because we are a very young country. The modern diplomacy that the world knows today was born in Europe: the terminology that we use, the lessons that we draw, the practices that we follow…. What we must learn : Europe has learned from its past in overcoming discord, in overcoming conflict despite diversity, despite overlapping territorial claims and a history of wars. I think the way you have basically come around to create the idea of a Community and of a Union. We hear a lot these days of what is to be said against globalization and on the drawbacks of globalization but I personally believe it is more distribution related challenges where our own internal governance systems have in some ways failed. It always happens that in every political system we find someone else to blame but we really need to put our own homes and houses in order to be able to optimally take advantage of globalization. So for countries like ours which are still in conflict and in discord, where religion still can unfortunately be a divisive factor or force, we need to learn to co-exist while I think what Europe needs to learn is that they should not expect their model and their experiences to be replicated by countries as ours.
Is this also present in your discussions with the EU, e.g. in the recent meeting of the Joint Commission EU-Pakistan?
Within this joint commission we have several layers of engagement with the EU as part of our strategic engagement plan. It all comes basically to discussions between the EU High Representative and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Underneath that we have the bilateral political dialogue, the security dialogue and also the joint commission.
In the joint commission there are 3 working groups. One working group dealt with governance and human rights. The other dealt with development, cooperation and the third dealt with trade and investment. These working groups meet before the plenary Joint Commission which is headed by Gunnar Wiegand , a very accomplished EU diplomat who knows the region very well. He is also the one who negotiated the strategic engagement plan with Pakistan, signed in June 2019, and is the one who basically created that mechanism. So it was a full discussion on the development plan and where we stand on the implementation of our commitments under the 27 international conventions related to labour and human rights, environmental and climate protection, and good governance that we have committed to implement under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) whereby the EU removes import duties from our products coming into the EU market. One most important part of the conversations this time around to us was our keen interest to get more information on the Global Gateway initiative.
What do you expect from this EU Global Gateway initiative?
The gateway looks at digital cooperation, climate and energy, transport and health , education and research. You can clearly see that every single one of these areas is an area where we see a lot of potential. So this was more of a get to know session where we had for the first time a comprehensive presentation from the EU side and our side has taken note of that. We have expressed our interest and in fact this was something that was also discussed between our Prime Minister and President Ursula von der Leyen from the European Commission when they met in New York and this was identified as important. It was a very warm and productive meeting, important to us as we basically transitioned from the relief and rescue phase during the flood last summer to the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase whereby we want to build back better in a climate resilient way and for this we are looking now at the various areas that are covered by the Gateway initiative. I can tell you this has never been more important, more relevant for us as it is now, today.
Next are the bilateral political consultations whereby the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan will come to Brussels and his counterpart Mr Enrique Mora will lead the EU side.
Most urgent now is to work at flood relief?
Yes, but it is not just about the flood. The destruction it caused has injected new urgency but putting that aside we are very keen on this global gateway because it has a very strong infrastructural component, also concerning energy and regional connectivity. We have been working e.g. on pipelines with Central Asia republics now for 5 or 6 decades but of course because of the situation in Afghanistan that could not be realized. Now is the time to start looking at it again and obviously political will is one factor but then to have a financial backing internationally from International banks such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Recovery and Development (EBRD) too. Those are the ones that we would really like to participate in investing in Pakistan as a transit hub. With almost 14000 km of road lands damaged or destroyed and under water it is not the least of our challenges.
The visit of UN Secretary General Guterres brought a lot of focus and attention to our misfortune and for him to say that he has not seen climate change at this scale ever in his life was very significant and countries and partners are coming forward in doing what they can. But clearly what is being done is frankly much less than what we need and what is required because when you look at the fact that the UN initially came up with an appeal of around 6 million dollars and then they revised that appeal to 816 million dollars. But so far, as my understanding is, only 20% has been actually delivered on the ground.
What do you expect from the EU?
Commissioner Lenarcic was recently in Pakistan. Maria Arena MEP also visited with other MEP’s the affected areas and the EU has contributed over 30 million dollars while EU countries have also individually contributed, with Germany in the lead with about 60 million, making that the contribution from the EU is around 130 million dollars. Which is given the present circumstances very significant because when it comes to relief and rescue we certainly need that kind of help. We need more shelters with winter coming in. We have tons of water but no drinking water so Denmark, Belgium and France have been forthcoming and have provided us with filtration plants and they provide thousands of litres of clean drinking water because that is creating disease . Because it is turning into a health emergency, it is turning into a food crisis…Situation is going to aggravate! Right now we still have our reserves. The challenge is next year because what is happening is that 70% of our food crop is gone! Rice growth in the South of Pakistan is gone. All the intermediate crops that usually are grown are gone as well!
The problem is that 33 million people are directly concerned. That’s like 3 times the Belgian population. It is a question of scale with more than 2 million houses destroyed. Another challenge comes upon that because people have been evacuated and been placed in shelters. Schools have been used as shelters and as it is now foreseen the water is not going away till January, which means that kids will also not be able to go to school all that time. These temporary shelters will need resources right now. We are trying to find these. We are trying to provide them with what is necessary but it is also a fact that even under normal circumstances malaria and dengue are major medical threats during our summers. We need mosquito nets and also food and medicine. Cooked food is a problem. We got donations but you could not access those areas because there was water, 40 to50 feet high, rescuers had to use boats and only the military and navy could go there.
In the long run the food crisis is going to be really the problem, because we are not able to sew the new crops. Next year will thus probably be even harder.
I think it is the rehabilitation part and the reconstruction part where we look to work very closely with our partners, particularly those here in Europe, to build back better, to build back in a resilient way and to turn this catastrophe into an opportunity by building resilient infrastructure, including houses.