The new British High Commissioner to Pakistan, Mark Lyall Grant, is no stranger to the country having worked in it more than two decades ago. However, today he returns under more difficult circumstances following the events of 11 September 2001 when Pakistan's role in the fight against terrorism became crucial in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in neighbouring Afghanistan.
In an exclusive interview with IRIN, the High Commissioner said that although these had been turbulent times for the Islamic country, issues such as security seemed to be improving. He added that as Pakistan was a former colony of Britain, the two countries already enjoyed a fruitful relationship, which he hoped they would build on during his stay in the country.
QUESTION: What is your assessment of Pakistani President Gen Pervez Musharraf's recent visit to the UK?
ANSWER: I think it was a very successful trip. It was the first official trip that Musharraf has made to the UK. He had a good series of talks there, but I think in many ways the most exciting part of the trip was the possibility to celebrate some of the [aspects of the] bilateral relationship between the UK and Pakistan, and there was a very successful event at the Albert Hall in London promoting a different side of Pakistan and the culture where Pakistani artists came over and were performing to a British audience at the Albert Hall.
He had a good meeting with potential investors and British business people, where he was setting out the economic steps the government has taken to improve the macroeconomy in Pakistan. He did quite a lot of media and presentation work, including in Parliament, where he spoke to both the Pakistan party group and the Foreign Affairs committee in Parliament to explain what he thought about democratic constitutional developments in Pakistan. There was quite a good range of events.
Q: How would you describe relations between Pakistan and the UK?
A: The relations are strong and they have always been strong. We have always been close and we haven't wavered in that support whatever the political changes in the country, because there are certain indissoluble links like the 800,000 people of Pakistani origin who live in the UK and the 80,000 British nationals who live in Pakistan, which transcend the political complexion of the governments at any stage either in the UK or Pakistan. But there is always room for improvement, and part of my job is to help make that improvement.
One of the areas for improvement is investment in trade. The UK is the largest long-term investor in Pakistan and also the largest new investor. Nevertheless, the level of bilateral trade is reasonable at one billion dollars a year, but it could be a lot more, frankly. I would like to see it increase significantly above that, given that we are the fourth-largest economy in the world, and Pakistan is the sixth-largest country in the world. So I think there is more that can be done in that area.
Q: How would you like to see trade improved between the UK and Pakistan?
A: Trade is very much a private sector business, so it's not for the British government to tell British companies to sell more to Pakistan, buy more from Pakistan or invest more in Pakistan. What we can do is improve the conditions which allow for that investment and trade to take place, and we can help Pakistan improve the environment in which people trade and invest. I could point to a number of steps, such as the travel advice. Businessmen in the UK have complained to us, saying that the travel advice had hindered trade. So one of the reasons we changed the travel advice is to help that trade.
We are trying to resolve the problems we have, such as those expressed around obtaining a visa, because clearly businessmen are frustrated as they can't get visas to travel to the UK due to security issues.
We have set up two trade advisory groups. There is a business advisory group set up in the UK, and there was a trade and investment forum set up in Pakistan, both of which are composed of business people, but with government involvement, to try and foster bilateral trade. We are expecting a visit to Pakistan by our new minister for trade in the autumn, and there will also be a visit by the Nottingham Chamber of Commerce this autumn, which in fact will be the first trade visit in two years due to security concerns.
Q: What sort of humanitarian work is the UK funding in Pakistan, and has it been scaled back due to the Iraq crisis and September 11?
A: We have a large development programme in Pakistan, and we are multiplying it four times this year. It is going up from about 25 million dollars to 100 million dollars bilateral programme, and all of that is grant that is focused on poverty reduction, and the areas that we focus it on are threefold.
One is education, one is health and the other is governance. The health focus is on primary health care, and that is a number of different projects we have particularly in the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which is where we are focusing a lot of our provincial support. The issues we tackle are maternal health - lady health workers who can offer medical assistance to those who don't have access to the normal health system in Pakistan. In education, our focus is primary education and access to primary education to people who don't have it, and in particular girls in the NWFP.
In governance, we have a number of projects, which are a mixture of high-level federal projects in terms of support for financial management systems, anti-corruption efforts etc at the top level, but [we are] also looking at some lower-level access to justice issues as well. In addition to this, we support a number of projects on human rights through a project fund which is run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
We also have a small-grants scheme which supports small projects, and a lot of that is targeted specifically in the human rights field, and we work very closely with the human rights adviser at the High Commission, who helps us develop these projects and submit them for funding from the UK. This year, we've had five significant projects approved by London in the human rights field.
Q: How have human rights changed in Pakistan since you were last here?
A: I was in Pakistan 20 years ago, and so one of the issues I'm looking at is the sort of changes that have occurred over the 20 years, including in the human rights field. I think there have been positive developments, and I'm thinking particularly of the press, which is a lot freer than it was in the 1980s, and that is a good sign. I think the NGO sector is probably more stronger and vocal than it was in the 1980s. But clearly there are some challenges to be met, particularly in access to justice, and I think this is crucial in improving human rights in Pakistan.
Q: Have their been any visible changes in women's rights?
A: I think there have been some positive developments. President Musharraf was saying during his visit to the UK that there are now 41,000 elected women. That is a very positive development, and most of these women were elected for the first time, and that should have an empowerment benefit for women, particularly in the outlying rural areas.
I think there are some women's rights NGOs which are very vocal. It is clear that there is still a long way to go. The literacy rate and enrolment for women and girls in primary education is lower than for men. There are still practices that we would deplore in the West, such as arranged marriages and honour killings, and these are issues that still exist in Pakistan, and we are working with the authorities here to try and clamp down on it.
Q: What kind of support does the High Commission give for those involved in forced marriages or for child abduction?
A: On the issue of child abduction, the legal apparatus in the UK signed a protocol with judges in Pakistan in January this year, which is the first such agreement we have reached with a Muslim country. What it does is try and tackle cases of child abduction from one country to another. The protocol agrees that the judges in each country will send the children back for their future to be decided where they were brought up.
If they were brought up in Pakistan and they were abducted to the UK, then if there is a conflict, the UK court can send those children back to the Pakistan court to deal with the case in the best interest of the child, and likewise when there is abduction from Pakistan to the UK. So that is a very exciting development. A delegation of very senior British judges is likely to come out in September and October this year to follow up a visit by Pakistani judges to the UK which led to the signing of the protocol.
The area of forced marriages is particularly a problem in the Kashmiri community in the UK. For example, the police in Bradford in southwest Yorkshire will receive up to 350 walk-ins a year from Asian girls who say their families want to send them against their will back to Pakistan.
Those who are sent to Pakistan become a concern for us at the High Commission. We have been very active and worked with the law authorities and police in Pakistan, and if we discover that they are British nationals who have been married against their will, then we will intervene. We have had cases where we have brought the girl to court and she has been able to explain that she was forced or wasn't forced. If she was married against her will, then we will help her return to the UK. This is a new area of work and we get full support from judges in Azad Kashmir.
Q: Moving on to security issues, as we see security deteriorating in neighbouring countries, including Afghanistan, and also the dispute with India over Kashmir, what concerns does the British High Commission have over security in the region?
A: Well, obviously there are significant security concerns as a whole. There is tension as a whole on the India/Pakistan border and recently tension on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, and there are security concerns within Pakistan. We have a direct interest in all of them and are tackling them in different ways. If we concentrate on Pakistan, this has been a concern in the past, but we feel that the situation is improving, and the government of Pakistan has had a great deal of success and support from the UK and the US in its fight against terrorism in the country.
A number of leaders of terrorist groups have been arrested, and the number of terrorist incidents in Pakistan aimed at foreigners has reduced. As a result of that we have changed our travel advice over the past few weeks and we no longer advise against British nationals travelling to Pakistan as was the case before.
What we say is that if you have a reason to come here, then you should take measures to ensure your security for the duration of your visit. We still advise against holiday travel unless you have family contacts in the country and, again, you should take security precautions. So it is quite a significant change from where we were. But the travel authorisation does recognise the situation as it is, which is that there is still a significant risk.
Q: Once again there are tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Durand Line, which separates the two countries. As the imperial British government demarcated the boundary with Afghanistan a century ago, is your government willing to mediate in the current dispute?
A: No, not directly, because to some extent the Americans are more directly involved than we are. There is a tripartite border commission, which consists of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States. That commission met a few weeks ago as a result of the accusations of border incursions, and a joint inspection team is now looking at the border to see the rights and wrongs of the respective accusations. Clearly, we are keeping an eye on that and we are talking to both governments about it, but we are not involved in any mediation efforts.
Q: Moving on to the issue of democracy, opposition politicians here maintain that Western support for democracy in Pakistan is limited to mere lip service. What is your response to this?
A: No, I don't think that is right. We obviously don't interfere in the politics of Pakistan, but we do have an interest in the transit to democracy. We have encouraged the government in its moves to the transit to democracy, and we have welcomed moves taken in that direction. We have welcomed the holding of local and provincial elections, we welcomed the national elections last year and we continue to encourage that development.
We have regular contacts with the political leaders here, with the members of the provincial and national assemblies, so we have an interest in the democracy of Pakistan. But it is not for us to dictate to the government how they should tackle political problems. Currently, there are disagreements over the legal framework order. We hope those difficulties will be overcome and there will be a resolution that allows the parliament to functions as it should do.
Q: What is the British government's view of shariat [Islamic law] in the NWFP?
A: The Shariat Bill has been passed in the NWFP. We have no particular objection to that. It is not the only place in the world where shariat law has been implemented. It has been implemented in several states in Nigeria.
We are opposed to some elements that can be implemented underneath the shariat law, and if those are implemented in Pakistan, we will set out our opposition to them. I'm thinking of some of the extreme punishments which can be implemented under shariat, such as floggings, amputations, stoning to death. We oppose that, but those haven't been carried out in Pakistan, despite the fact that shariat law has been implemented in Pakistan in theory since the 1980s.
Q: Do you think that political parties such as the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) could affect Pakistan's relations with the UK in particular and the West in general?
A: I would hope not. They were duly elected under a democratic process, and the MMA have a perfect right to have won the NWFP, and we have no difficulty in that and we haven't seen anything that they have done on a legislative basis to be concerned. As I mentioned, the NWFP is one of our focal provinces, and we have a number of projects there.
We have been talking with the MMA government about those projects, and so far they have been very cooperative, including in areas that we are interested in, such as primary and women's education, and they have said they will support them. Clearly, if the NWFP government takes policy decisions which are fundamentally in conflict with our concept of support for education in the province, then we will discontinue those projects. But that has not been the case so far and hope it won't be the case in the future.
Q: Finally, what do you think the future holds for relations between Pakistan and the UK?
A: Well, I hope that during the three years that I am here that they will improve. They are already good, but there is always scope for better improvement, and I hope that I can play a small part in bringing that about. But as I mentioned at the beginning, there are some indissoluble links really between the two countries because of the history and exchange between the peoples that I think transcend political changes, and I'm sure that sort of relationship will always continue.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions