71st UN General Assembly: What I Would Have Said

On September 21, 2016, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke at the 71st United Nations General Assembly. Listening to him and some other world leaders, it was hard to believe that the session’s theme was sustainable development goals. I have taken the liberty to re-write that speech in an attempt to imagine what I would say. 

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General and fellow delegates. At the last session, we agreed upon seventeen sustainable development goals. Today, on behalf of the people of Pakistan, I would like to offer you a brief overview of where we stand and what obstacles we face in ensuring the sustainability of these development goals.

Between 2007 and 2013, the proportion of the population living under the national poverty line decreased by 33%. Over the same period, the labor force grew from 53.36 million to 65.36 million (22%). Between 2002 and 2007, the number of primary school age girls not enrolled in primary or secondary school decreased from almost 5 million to 3.4 million.

However, despite the improvement in female enrolment in schools referred to above, the situation is more or less stagnant since 2007 and the ratio of girls to boys remains worse than one to a hundred. In particular, the developmental stagnancy after 2007 has been an interesting topic of investigation. Some analysts say that this stagnation is evidence for the argument that the situation was improving under a military dictator, and progress stalled as democratic forces took government. I could not disagree more.

Between 2001 and 2006, there were 937 battle-related deaths in Pakistan. Then there were 759 in 2007, 3470 in 2008, 6837 in 2009 and 5995 in 2010. By the same year, the number of Pakistanis displaced within the country as a result of military operations reached a million (and that is the low estimate). Do you think it is simply by chance that this coincides with the 50% troop surge in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2009?

Across Western media, much of the narrative has revolved around immigration and the role it has supposedly played in reviving nationalist sentiment across the supposedly free world. In the last few years, the influx of refugees from Syria has caused alarm but in 2014, Pakistan hosted more than twice as many refugees as United States, Germany, India, Sweden and UK combined. The refugee population in Pakistan has not fallen below 1 million since the 80s, and peaked at 3.26 million in 1990.

As I stand here today on behalf of my people, I wonder whether we are doing all we can to help countries that are struggling to sprint towards our sustainable development goals. We talk about inequality within and among nations, and we have mastered rhetorical diplomacy but are we even being honest to ourselves?

If we are, then why is it that hundreds of thousands of refugees in high-come nations constitutes a global emergency but millions of Afghan and other refugees in Pakistan are first abandoned then just written off as an unfortunate reality? When countries with high income, high level of education, strong institutions, and strong law and order have been shaken by the refugee influx, can we safely say we have offered the required level of understanding and support to countries like Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan? Are we sure that the problem for us is the fact that there are refugees, people displaced and shaken by war, and not that they are coming to our countries?

My fellow delegates, when our decisions of war have impact on other societies for generations to come, we must take responsibility and not hide behind the rhetorical version of the very veil that is so despised by some among us. We talk about carbon taxes; what about gunpowder taxes? We are sitting on our liberal high horses, discussing penalties for putting holes in the ozone layer, while there seem to be no penalties for holes in the bodies, bodies in the ground, and fire-breathing drones in the air.

What mechanism do we have in place to have invading armies compensate for the damages they cause in this never-ending game of thrones? I do not know about your people, but my people, 75% of whom are below the age of 35, are starting to see the injustice that sometimes emanates from these halls of power. They have access to a plethora of information and they are not afraid to ask questions. They are increasingly exposed to and enraged by the way global politics works. They are tired of wars; they are sick of violence; and they are skeptical of the status-quo both within and between nations.

Finally, if we are talking about injustice as a roadblock to these sustainable development goals, I must speak a few words on behalf of the people of Kashmir, with whom Pakistan shares a special relationship.  Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has strived to give the people of Kashmir a voice on the international stage, relentlessly supporting them in their struggle for independence. We face this duty, to be their voice, as their own voices have been silenced time and again.

More than a hundred people have died in state violence in Kashmir. Hundreds have lost sight as a result of guns shooting pellets that pierce through. Most victims arriving to hospitals had these injuries on the chest or face and some of the images that managed to come out are truly gruesome. When it comes to our sustainable development goals, this is a step back and not forward.

I also condemn the attack on Indian soldiers in Uri. Violence must be denounced in all forms. But a state, specially a democratic one with regional leadership ambitions, holds final responsibility. A state, a democratic one, has to lead by example and make a distinction between peaceful protesters and terrorists. It is not wise to mix the two, and a state that rules by violence, also leaves violence as the only means for freedom. We encourage our Kashmiri brothers to continue treading along their peaceful path, rejecting violence as they do. Model your struggle after the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, all of whom changed history forever by their ability to achieve much for their people without resorting to violence. But injustice also breeds the occasional Malcolm X, or Bhagat Singh, or Burhan Wani, as we saw recently. What did he do, and why could he not be tried in court for that?

It is time for us to decide once and for all: do we want to live in a world where we talk about freedom but with a footnote denoted with a dollar sign, or one where we, as responsible powerful nations, lead by example not rhetoric. If we create a world where one can do anything as long as they have power, people are incentivized to secure power regardless of the cost or means, knowing that they will not be held accountable for the means as long as they secure the ends. But the ends do not justify the means, or do they? Perhaps a topic for next year.

Thank you.

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