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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan prioritizes doles over Human Rights


Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, within the last week, has proffered revealing insights into his thinking, values, and disposition. The picture that emerges is not flattering. His greenness in politics and governance had been exposed soon after he assumed office in August this year, but what has now emerged is infinitely more sinister and disquieting. Not only did Khan choose to attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) Conference in Saudi Arabia on 22-23 October, disregarding the international furore over the brutal murder and dismemberment of veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but the explanation he gave for doing so exposed his utter disregard for human rights. This demonstrated apathy did not prevent Khan from sanctimoniously questioning the human rights record of another country, India, in the same breath and without batting an eyelid. It is such selectivity, whether in demanding adherence to human rights or in defining terrorists and extending support to some while butchering others, that has earned Pakistan the disrepute of being widely perceived as an unreliable and capricious State.

Imran Khan in his first interview to the foreign media since taking over as Prime Minister made some startling revelations. He condemned Khashoggi’s murder by saying, “What happened in Turkey is just shocking, what can I say? It’s shocked all of us”. The shock, however, was apparently not jarring enough for Khan to warrant his joining countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Germany, among others, in boycotting the FII event to convey their indignation at Saudi Arabia’s crossing the boundary of acceptability this time around. All these countries share close ties with Saudi Arabia, just as Pakistan does. Khan then let the cat out of the bag with a shocker. He said that he had no choice but to attend the FII Summit as “we are desperate for money… The reason I have to take this opportunity is because we are a country of 210 million people and we have the worst debt crisis in our history. Unless we get loans from friendly countries or the IMF, we actually won’t have foreign exchange to either service our debts or to pay for our imports, so unless we get loans, or investment from abroad, we’ll have real, real problems”. Essentially what Khan said was that his indignation at the brutal murder of Khashoggi would have been strong enough to keep him at an arm’s length from the Saudi event, but since substantial doles from the embattled Saudi leadership seemed to be enticingly on offer, he would disregard the most definitive violation of Khashoggi’s human rights, as also his own conscience, to exploit the situation to its fullest.

The foreign currency reserves held by Pakistan’s central bank have dropped this month to $8.1 billion, a four-year low and barely enough to cover sovereign debt payments due till the end of this year. The current account deficit has swelled to about $18 billion. To address this dire situation Pakistan has recently asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to open negotiations for the country’s second potential bailout in five years. If approved, this will be the 13th IMF bailout for Pakistan since the country’s birth 71 years ago. Khan had also identified China, which he is scheduled to visit next week, and Saudi Arabia, as alternatives to the expected harsh conditions the IMF is likely to impose for any loans it grants to Pakistan.

Imran Khan had visited Saudi Arabia to solicit easy money last month too, but had been unsuccessful. This time around he was able to exploit the Saudi vulnerability in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair to extract $3 billion for one year to cover Pakistan’s current-account deficit and supply of $3 billion worth of Saudi oil to Pakistan on deferred payments. While this Saudi generosity would provide Khan with a temporary short-term solution, what Pakistan requires desperately is a long-term strategy to reverse its economic woes. Khan has not spoken much about any such long-term plan.

Some of the reactions emanating from Pakistan to Khan’s visit to Riyadh and his pre-visit interview have been scathing. TV anchor Syed Talat Hussain tweeted that "even those countries that are drowning don't say publicly 'we are desperate for fund'. It is graceless and denigrates the country. PM Imran has said this and it is absolutely embarrassing". Similarly, former Pakistani Senator Farhatullah Babar opined that "Kingdom's isolation and rattling monarchy may seem to create space for financial bailout. Remember, tradeoffs that are mercenary in character are intrinsically unsustainable, will haunt Pakistan for long".

Ayesha Ijaz Khan eloquently underlined in an article in Pakistan’s ‘Dawn’ daily that the country’s economic woes were endemic. She wrote, “I do understand that Pakistan is facing a financial crisis and that, for as far back as I can remember, our leadership, whether military or civilian, has prided itself on how adept it is at extracting handouts from ‘friendly countries’ rather than taking the requisite steps to reform the economy. The new government, for all its talk of change, is no different, and is perhaps feeling the crunch more acutely because of the unrealistic promises it made to the people prior to assuming power…Of course, Islamabad should do what is right for its interests, but its interests must be well thought out, with a cognizance that building an image on moral authority and in line with international consensus may be more beneficial in the long run than desperate short-term measures with dubious benefit”.

Khan was also asked in the aforementioned interview whether he, as the leader of one of Saudi Arabia’s closest military allies that was among the most populous Muslim countries in the world, would at least raise the Khashoggi issue during his scheduled meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who many have accused of being linked to the killing, and seek a full disclosure. Khan was shifty and evasive in his response. He said, “I will probably meet Crown Prince Mohammad at the conference. The question has been raised at many forums, and I presume the Saudi Arabian government will have to come up with answers for what happened. They have said that he was killed in a fight, in a scuffle, that’s what I have heard. My position is that I will go along and I will wait for whatever the final explanation is”.

The interview also brought out Khan’s position on the prickly civil-military relations in Pakistan and the military’s role in the country. He contended that the country’s past military regimes have been more benign than some civilian governments, and that the army now promotes and safeguards civilian rule. “I can tell you that under General Zia’s military rule there was less political victimization than in the last 10 years of Nawaz Sharif and Zardari. The intentions of the Pakistani military are being misrepresented – in fact it currently promotes and safeguards civilian rule. The military’s role in politics depends on one man, the Army Chief. The establishment of General Bajwa is probably the most pro-democratic establishment in our history. I mean the way they have conducted the elections. The army was inside the polling stations and outside, they protected the election on the day. A lot of people were killed during the elections and I was under severe threats. It was the security forces which provided the security for me to stand up and conduct rallies, that is why this is the most pro-democratic institution under General Bajwa”.

The opposition parties in Pakistan led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have long alleged that Imran Khan was a puppet propped up by the Pakistani military establishment. They could, based on Khan’s coloured description, certainly lay claim to having been vindicated. As for the portrayal of the military establishment as the impartial guardian angel of democracy, PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif who was prepensely barred from contesting the last elections, as also most other democratically-inclined politicians in Pakistan, would not be amused. Sharif has been screaming himself hoarse at every opportunity that he gets that it was the military establishment that was behind his removal as Prime Minister and his subsequent incarceration just prior to the elections. This adversely affected his party’s electoral fortunes.

Khan’s callous lack of cognizance of Khashoggi’s brutal and deliberate murder contrasted sharply with the empathy he articulated towards victims of an explosive device that went off at the site of an encounter with terrorists in Kulgam district of Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir that had not yet been sanitized by the security forces. India responded on 22 October by advising that “instead of making comments on India’s internal affairs, the Pakistan leadership should look inwards and address its own issues. Pakistan would serve the interest of the people of the region by taking credible action against all kind of support to terrorism and terror infrastructure from all territories under its control, rather than supporting and glorifying terrorists and terror activities against India and its other neighbours. Pakistan's deceitful stand on dialogue, while supporting terror and violence, stands exposed to the whole world”.

Imran Khan’s interpretation of human rights as emerges from his interview and subsequent actions seems to be that violations, no matter how vile and blatant, can conveniently be disregarded as long as alms are offered in return.

On Pakistan’s economic future, he similarly appears to believe that the country can be run on doles alone.