PAKISTAN curates its foreign service with great care. Only the brightest are invited to undergo the vigorous training to shape them to represent the country and its interests all around the world. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan has 114 missions across the globe.
We also take our presence in the UN seriously — forcefully lobbying to gain a seat at the UN Human Rights Council in 2017. We appeared for three UN reviews last year, each time better prepared than we had been at the one before.
Pakistan must take pride in its diplomatic prowess. It is a hard-earned seat at the table, cultivated over decades and since 9/11 in a less-than-welcoming environment. We’ve had our enemies. To counter them, we have built some friendships over the years.
According to our foreign policy, Saudi Arabia is one such friend. There’s even a treaty of friendship to mark it.
Also read: Footprints: On the death row in Saudi Arabia
And make no mistake, Pakistan has been a good friend. We helped free the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1979. We stationed military forces in the kingdom during the Iran-Iraq war.
We trained their forces, and in return, Saudi Arabia granted us direct financial aid. We received oil at a reduced price, and sometimes, even for free.
We were able to withstand US sanctions following our nuclear tests because Riyadh came to our rescue.
Saudi Arabia has little regard for the rights of Pakistani citizens.
Four years ago, a ‘gift’ of $1.5 billion was made in good faith to the Pakistani leadership. Bilateral trade between the two countries is currently at $2.5bn. Over two million Pakistanis live in the kingdom, remitting a whopping $4.83bn just last year.
But with countries, where there is friendship, there is also self-interest. The cornerstone of diplomacy is the quid pro quo. And as parliamentarian Shireen Mazari pointed out, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan can be slow to collect theirs. While Pakistan categorises Saudi Arabia as its top ally, the latter has little regard for the rights and lives of the citizens of the former.
Justice Project Pakistan and Human Rights Watch released Caught in a Web, research documenting the treatment of Pakistani prisoners in the Saudi criminal justice system. Trials marked by rampant due process violations have led to the executions of at least 66 Pakistanis; 2,795 Pakistanis languish in jails, subject to abuse and poor jail conditions.
The highest number of foreign nationals executed in the kingdom have been Pakistanis, who are treated worse than any other nationality. How your citizens are treated is a much better mark of your diplomatic relations than the grand receptions officials receive.
Diplomatic prowess is best measured in situations involving difficult conversations. This is one that our leadership is long overdue to have with its Saudi counterpart.
In October 2015, India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj condemned the attack on an Indian domestic worker by her Saudi employer who chopped her arm off. The Indian embassy immediately took note of the incident, and extended her consular and legal help to pursue charges against her employer. Swaraj tweeted that an Indian citizen being subject to this brutality was ‘unacceptable’ and diplomats from the embassy took it up with the highest authorities. Pakistani officials seldom, if ever, visit their citizens in Saudi jails.
In 2014, Sri Lanka had Saudi Arabia sign a labour deal that sought to protect the rights of 500,000 of its citizens working in the kingdom after a 24-year-old maid was beheaded. The Sri Lankan embassy also has a 24-hour hotline where distressed workers can call for help. Many detained Pakistanis and their families are not even sure which government agency to reach out to in the same situation.
The Filipino government regularly intervenes on behalf of their overseas workers. A 2011 government inquiry on behalf of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs found that there is “no doubt” that their diplomatic staff actively monitor developments in death-row cases involving their citizens. “Saudi lawyers are engaged, Saudi authorities are lobbied, efforts are made to negotiate monetary settlements with the kin of the victims, whether these relatives are located in Saudi Arabia or in the Philippines.”
A consular protection policy is the need of the hour. Pakistan must negotiate a prisoner transfer agreement with Saudi Arabia, and tap into its community welfare funds to come to the aid of prisoners on death row by securing them lawyers, and help bring exculpatory evidence to Saudi courts.
Helping prisoners in Saudi Arabia isn’t impossible. And for a country that since 1967 has reportedly trained over 8,200 Saudi armed forces personnel, it should not be a tall ask that its citizens be accorded their right to fair trial, consular access, and legal representation.
After all, what good is a friendship that cannot withstand a confrontation?
The writer is executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2018