PAKISTAN has clearly decided that it needs to craft a new image — at least in Europe — of a ‘good’ country which wants peace and stability in its neighbourhood, does not interfere in the affairs of others and is the unwitting and unwilling victim of terrorism and extremism.
Sitting here in Brussels, I have no inside knowledge of just who is behind the search for a new Pakistani global brand. Certainly, he/she deserves credit. Pakistan could do with an image make-over. And the country’s articulate and argumentative Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar is a good person to take on the tough challenge.
Khar’s recent visit to Brussels helped to put Pakistan on the EU agenda and may also have set a new tone in Islamabad’s often fraught relationship with Nato. But it is not enough. Turning EU and Nato pledges into reality will require major policy changes in Pakistan.
This is especially true if Pakistan wants to be viewed as a responsible stakeholder in discussions on the future of post-2014 Afghanistan. It is also the case in trade where Pakistan’s search for better access to EU markets hinges on commitments on a range of issues including human rights and labour standards.
Let’s not mince words: reshaping the narrative on Pakistan is going to be an uphill task. The Pakistani ‘brand’ has been tarnished by years of bad policies including interference in Afghanistan, army misrule, terrorism, export of extremism, corruption and discrimination against women and minorities.
Turning the ‘Pakistan story’ around is not impossible. Countries like Turkey, Indonesia, Myanmar, to mention just a few, have done so with great success. But these countries did not just engage in public relations and spin, they actually changed their policies and political direction.
Clearly for all the hand-wringing that many Pakistanis engage in, much has also changed and is changing for the better in the country. The problem is simple: those positive changes and transformations are not being communicated to the rest of the world. And when they are, positive developments are often overshadowed by negative ones.
Pakistan’s skilful diplomats are undoubtedly able to talk the talk on all positive aspects of the country — from Islamabad’s search for Afghan-led solutions in the post-2014 era to the work being done to improve human rights.
But times have changed. Foreign ministers, ambassadors and their aides can do just so much. They can wax lyrical about their countries’ wonderful assets and good intentions — but their credibility is limited in an interconnected world of rapid communication and information dissemination. Diplomatic hype and spin do not stand up to international scrutiny when the reality on the ground is different. And diplomats cannot do it alone.
In the 21st century, foreign policy is not the prerogative — and monopoly — of foreign ministries. Perceptions of a country are also determined by business leaders, civil society representatives, human rights advocates, artists, writers, singers, students, academics and journalists. Pakistan is lucky in having brilliant artists, much-admired human rights defenders and good journalists. Individually and collectively, they are a diplomatic asset which surpasses the power of traditional diplomats.
Diasporas also have an important role to play — as a force for good when they are successful and a force for evil when they engage in terrorist activities and tribal practices such as honour killings. Reshaping European perceptions of Pakistan may, in fact, be more challenging than securing a change in American attitudes towards Pakistan.
The US focus is almost exclusively on Afghanistan — and terrorism. The US needs Pakistan on its side to ‘win’ the war in Afghanistan — or rather to make a dignified exit from the country. Not surprisingly, the US is focused mostly on Pakistan’s military and its concerns and priorities. The EU interest in Pakistan is multifaceted and multi-dimensional. Ms Rabbani probably got a taste of Europe’s concerns during her visit to Brussels and especially in her contacts with a small but influential group of European parliamentarians and — to a much lesser extent — in her meeting with a few think tanks. The encounter at the European Parliament is especially significant since the assembly is the only really democratic institution in the EU —– and its members have a strong focus on social issues. If Pakistan is going to be eligible for GSP Plus — allowing its textiles duty-free access to the EU market — it will have to convince a sceptical European Parliament that it is doing due diligence on improving human rights.
In her talks with members of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Khar was grilled on issues such as Afghanistan, relations with India, concern over Malala Yousufzai, the treatment of women and minorities. Significantly, MEPs like Sajjad Karim of the UK, who have constituents of Pakistani descent, are concerned about cases of kidnappings of British citizens while on visits to Pakistan. Karim has told Dawn that he is particularly worried about the case of six-year old Atiya Wilkinson from Manchester who was illegally taken to Pakistan by her Pakistani father four years ago and whose whereabouts remain unknown. The father — who went back to the UK — is in prison for refusing to divulge just where the little girl is. Her mother Gemma says her life is now an “absolute nightmare”.
Karim says that his private discussion with Ms Khar was positive and that she has promised to look into the case and do “whatever we can”. That is good news. Girls like Atiya, Malala and Rimsha Masih may appear like small players in the high-stakes world of global diplomacy. But in the end, it’s how Pakistan deals with them — and millions of other young children, women and minorities — that will determine its reputation in Europe.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.