NEW YORK: For the past two years, the UN has tirelessly repeated that global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of climate change, and a lack of progress in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals are all having a disproportionately damaging effect on the world’s poor.

The discrepancy in vaccination rates around the world alone is a shocking illustration of the widening gap between less wealthy nations, where on average only about 5 percent of populations have been inoculated, and rich countries, where more than 90 percent of people have received jabs.

Pakistan intends to lead the effort to address these issues. The country was elected recently to chair the Group of 77 in 2022. It is the largest organization within the UN for developing nations and its role is to promote the collective economic interests of its participating states, which now number 134.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with Arab News, Munir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, set out his vision for bridging the gap between the world’s rich and poor. He also discussed his country’s position on developments in Afghanistan, the latest talks in Vienna with Iran about the nuclear deal, and Pakistan’s diplomatic battle to reverse India’s revocation of the special status previously afforded to Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistan intends to begin its tenure as chair of G77 by immediately pushing for universal vaccinations, and the mobilization of funding to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and boost financial recovery efforts.

“Such (funding) would include debt restructuring — the redistribution of $650 million of new SDRs (special drawing rights, which are supplementary foreign exchange reserves maintained by the International Monetary Fund) in order to ensure that developing countries get at least $200 billion — along with larger concessional financing, and the mobilization of $100 billion in annual climate finance by the developed countries,” Akram said.

He pledged to promote unity among G77 members “so that they can act as a powerful force in order to realize their developmental and national interests.”

He added: “To get the international solidarity (needed) to achieve the objectives they have set for themselves, the G77 need, first and foremost, solidarity among themselves.”

The ambassador called for the streamlining of common objectives among poor nations into “one coherent whole.” The “strategic change” that he said is required in the power dynamics between developing and rich nations cannot be achieved unless all developing nations act together and “mutually support each other in their specificities.”

Pakistan has also called on the international community to take action to stop the billions of dollars in illicit finance flows that pour out of developing countries, and to return their stolen assets. These calls have a renewed sense of urgency in relation to Afghanistan, Akram said, the assets of which have been frozen in the US and elsewhere in the world following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August.

The danger of economic collapse in the country is imminent, he added, and with estimates suggesting that more than a million children could die this winter, the provision of humanitarian assistance has, more than ever, become a matter of life and death.

“The international community should engage with the Taliban,” Akram said. “But more importantly, we need to reassure all the organizations and countries that are willing to help Afghanistan that their actions will not evoke the sanctions that have been imposed through the Security Council, and nationally by certain countries; that they will not punished for helping the Afghan people.”

Leaving the Afghan people to starve will lead to the “very consequences that are feared by the international community,” he warned. “Starvation will lead to migration. That’s the first thing that would happen.”

If chaos is allowed to reign, Akram said, “you would then see the resurgence of those terrorist movements that are present in Afghanistan, with the Taliban unable to suppress or neutralize them.”

In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, many Afghans blamed neighboring Pakistan for the group’s success in regaining control of their country. In particular they pointed to the hosting of Taliban leaders and their families, and the provision of medical treatment to the group’s wounded fighters.

Blaming Pakistan, according to Akram, is “a crass misreading of the cultural, religious, and historical context of (this) conflict, which was misunderstood, misread, misinterpreted and misapplied.

“The fact of the matter is that the war in Afghanistan came to Pakistan, not the other way around. We didn’t invite those wars.

“We have a population which consists of about 14 million Pashtuns on our side. In Afghanistan, there are half of those Pashtuns, and they are bound by history, by ethnicity, by family ties, by fate. You cannot just simply say that when you intervene against one part of this ethnicity on one side that it will not evoke a reaction on the other side, borders or no borders, as such.”

Looking back at the decades of foreign involvement in Afghanistan, Akram blamed the ultimate fiasco on the failure of the intervening powers “to take into account the local particularity of the (Afghan) society.”

He added: “Those who felt they could impose their values on other societies obviously need to rethink the strategy, if not the objectives that they wish to promote.”

In Vienna, meanwhile, international frustration with Iran continues to spill out of the ongoing talks about a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. World powers accuse Tehran of enriching uranium to a point where “we are reaching the end of the road,” and obstructing the work of international nuclear monitors.

“We watch from the margin and we are very interested in the success of the talks because the alternative to success would be a revival of the tensions in the region,” Akram said.

“Iran is a neighbor. We have common borders. We cannot have bad relations with Iran because that will be bad for both our countries.”

The envoy expressed his country’s wish for Iran to have “good relations with our other friends in the region, especially Saudi Arabia because we have a long historical and emotional relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

He added: “Pakistan, unlike others, has not sought strategic gain from its relationship with Saudi Arabia. It’s just been emotional. It is the holy land, it is the land of the two holy places to which we pray in Makkah.

“So our hope is that we can evolve over time in an understanding that will promote such coexistence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

On the issue of Kashmir, Pakistani diplomatic efforts for the past two years have focused on reversing India’s decision in August 2019 to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

There has been little reaction from the international community, however, leading some to conclude that Islamabad has lost this battle. Akram disagrees.

“Unfortunately, at a certain stage, certain governments in Pakistan lost the will to push the cause of Kashmir at the international level,” he said. “And therefore for almost 50 years we only raised the issue perfunctorily, without the determination and commitment needed.

“It was only once Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power (that) we relaunched the international campaign to support the Kashmiri people.”

Akram argued that Pakistan’s campaign has been successful in influencing public opinion and convincing people “the Kashmiri struggle is legitimate, that there is a Kashmiri desire for freedom from India, and India is committing massive violations of human rights in occupied Jammu and Kashmir.”

However, the efforts have been impeded by the “power realities of today,” he said.

“India has the unwavering support of its new strategic partner, the United States of America, and its allies in the West, some of whom are also permanent members of the Security Council, and those allies have prevented action (by various international bodies) because of the influence they wield in the international community,” Akram added.

“Our efforts will continue. We have not lost; it is a 100-year struggle. Any people that persists in the search for freedom has never lost in history.”

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