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The Astute Ambassador

by Ayeda Iftikhar
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Victor Blue for Newsweek

Victor Blue for Newsweek

Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Pakistan’s former envoy to the United Nations.

After his appointment as Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in September 2008, Abdullah Hussain Haroon quickly became one of the most popular, and effective, diplomats in New York. He defended Pakistan in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad, bridge-built with the Indian delegation, got Pakistan elected to the Security Council, and broadened his country’s diplomatic field of vision. His work has been hailed by the U.N. secretary-general and the U.S. Congress. We recently spoke with Haroon about diplomacy and its challenges, and his current work. Excerpts:

Your four-year term at the U.N. ended last year but you were asked to stay on for another two years. Why did you choose to resign and move back to Karachi?

There were serious problems back home. The Lyari constituency in Karachi was developed by my grandfather in the 1930s. He funded the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and gave it rights of residency on the land. But people were losing their lives over there from the ongoing conflict, and it was difficult for me to work for them from New York. The government had assured me that my people and Lyari would be protected. But that was pretense: nothing was done and there was no justice in Karachi. The government also ignored a number of my suggestions while I held office. Some of the decisions that ended up being taken will have serious repercussions. That’s all I can say. I’m focusing now on Lyari, and on providing food and health services to people in Sindh.

Your U.N. appointment was criticized on the grounds that you lacked experience. Yet, your articulation and diplomacy scored some unprecedented successes for Pakistan at the U.N., including its election to the Security Council. Do you feel vindicated?

The appointment was rightly criticized. I had no previous background in diplomacy nor was I aware of how the mission worked in New York. The task seemed uphill at first, but it didn’t scare me. My principle was that I had to give back to my country as I hit the ground running. In the initial three weeks I had met with everyone, and I believe that went well. We identified the key issues at the U.N. and were able to bring interested people together into blocs. That proved effective.

Your friendship with your Indian counterpart, Hardeep Singh Puri, surprised many diplomats in New York. Both of you were recently also awarded the Thomas Jefferson Eternal Vigilance award by the U.N. secretary-general. Can the platform of the U.N. help resolve the Kashmir issue?

There was a general feeling that Pakistan and India were always enemies and this was exploited to our disadvantage. What I did was to stop that mockery and break this pattern. With India, we need more constructive engagement. At the U.N., we have a Kashmir committee in place with Saudi Arabia and the Muslim African states. We also invite the Kashmiris to the U.N. every year. During my tenure, [Pakistan’s Army chief] Gen. [Ashfaq] Kayani gave a positive statement about completely demilitarizing Kashmir, which was an opportunity the Indians missed. But like at Simla, which was a strictly bilateral affair, issues between India and Pakistan are best addressed without the involvement of foreign eyes and interests.

Do you agree that Pakistan has stayed focused on its relations with just a handful of countries at the expense of other, potentially useful alliances?

It is important for Pakistan to participate in world issues even if they do not directly affect it. We participated in discussions with the Non-Aligned Movement states, and focused on Africa, South America, and the forgotten parts of the world. We also dealt with landlocked states alongside NAM and the Group of 77. We reactivated the Asian and African continental groups. When the EU wanted membership to the U.N., we got together to block the move, which was probably a big shock to the world. We told them that the old way they had wanted to work was wrong. So we held discussions and a year later we elected them by an overwhelming vote.

How difficult was it to get Pakistan elected to the U.N. Security Council?

I personally believe that Pakistan is not very well-kneaded into the U.N. and like most governments just gets involved because it needs to, because it might require support in the future for Pakistan. The Security Council election was important as, at that time, the U.S. was campaigning against us and had put up Kyrgyzstan as their candidate to create a Muslim divide. But the fact that we got through on the first count was a victory, and this only happened because we fit into every grouping of the U.N. by expanding our once-narrow agenda. By working for the entire world and not just focusing on our self-interests, we were able to earn respect and create a good niche for ourselves.

The U.N. report on the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was published during your tenure. The government led by her party is criticized for never acting on that report. What were some of the challenges that came up while this investigation was being carried out?

The issue of the assassination had not been officially supported when I went to the U.N. I had to negotiate the terms and conditions of the inquiry, which the government of Pakistan wanted to stringently limit in scope. Pakistan would only provide the U.N. team “limited access” and have them focus not on who did it, but on what happened on Dec. 27, 2007. The U.N. was given no margin to breathe. The government did not facilitate them. They were not given access to everyone. The adequacy of security was a problem. And only six months were given to complete the entire investigation. We cannot blame the U.N. report for not being expansive or more concrete since we set the mandate and the terms of reference. On their second visit to Pakistan, in February 2009, the government began frightening them. I flew down to Pakistan and got them appointments with people the government was not allowing them to meet. The report was completed in six months. It has its limitations but it also contains severe indictments.

With 8,967 personnel deployed with the U.N. as of December, Pakistan is the single largest contributor to the global body’s peacekeeping operations. What role did you play in protecting the interests of these Pakistanis abroad?

I think this is one of our greatest successes. Pakistani troops are well-disciplined and have helped with military work and reconstruction efforts—building schools, road, bridges in Africa. All this is highly praiseworthy and shores up our global standing. For 18 years, there were no financial adjustments in what our troops were paid. For three years running, we got this revised up by 21 percent.

From our Sept. 6, 2013, issue.

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