Seeking climate justice? – 17 Nov 2022

The proponents of Pakistan’s search for climate justice must visit an impressive case of the last century that prompted a global change of hearts and minds and led to the dismantling of apartheid – considered a remote possibility not too long before.

When the late Swedish prime minister Olof Palme shortly before his tragic assassination in 1986 famously pronounced apartheid as a “system that can not be reformed, it must be dismantled”, the end to white minority rule in South Africa seemed a distant possibility.

By the time of Palme’s landmark speech anti-apartheid activists around the world notably Europe had begun organizing regular anti apartheid protests. But Western governments, notably the UK and the US, firmly stood behind South Africa’s white supremacist rulers, driven mainly by a combination international business interests along side the fear of leftist ideology taking grasp in that country if the black majority population received equal democratic rights. Yet, the unexpected release of the late icon Nelson Mandela just four years later and the subsequent peaceful transition to a fully democratic South Africa led to the most celebrated bloodless political change of the 20th country.

Today, as Pakistan grapples with the fallout from this years’ climate disaster that led to Islamabad’s plea for global financial support, there are lessons to be learnt from the South African case. While towering figures like Olof Palme joined by other Scandinavian governments deserve special praise for stepping up to serve a just cause, it was eventually the change within South Africa that caught global attention. Together, the personas of Palme and notable figures in South Africa led by the late Nelson Mandela led to a powerful change of minds across the world.

As Pakistan grapples with the challenge of catching global imagination, its task ahead must be built upon building ties with global figures and institutions to plead its case alongside bold internal reforms to lead towards progressive change. It is clear that only a Pakistan which is capable of impressing the world with its ability to change rapidly for the better will lay the foundation for generous global support in dealing with the country’s flood related catastrophe.

Pakistan’s active engagement with world class players, ranging from the UN secretary-general to attendees at the high-profile COP27 environmental conference in Sharm el Shaikh, Egypt, have set the stage for a continued international democratic engagement. But within Pakistan, the post-flood recovery, reconstruction and establishment of long-term safeguards are yet to be knitted together in a powerful strategy for the short, medium and long term.

Together, the two ends – global interest in tandem with Pakistan’s internal reforms – will lay the basis for Pakistan to reap the benefits in the shape of sustained international interest to lift Pakistan from its crisis. The reforms, if undertaken comprehensively, could well arrive in time to avert Pakistan’s next balance of payments crisis, already predicted by some to take the country towards a mayhem laden default on debt repayments.

Two intertwined objectives must lead the way towards changing Pakistan permanently to not only impress the world but more vitally to change the country’s outlook within.

First, Pakistan’s failure to reform over time has not only weakened its institutions at the centre of internal governance. The failure has also caused a collapse of the country’s economy in fundamentally vital areas. At the tip of the iceberg lies the oft-repeated failure to reform the country’s tax and revenue collection system that have turned Pakistan into an economic basket case. In sharp contrast to Pakistan’s status as the Islamic world’s only country impressively armed with nuclear weapons, its ability to force many more of its people to pay their tax dues has left behind a glaring mismatch.

The choice for Pakistan is very clear. Either the country reforms its economy in tandem with its exclusive membership of the nuclear club or be prepared for relentless global pressure to abandon its strategic position. In brief, the two – membership of an exclusive strategic club alongside a repeatedly faltering economy can just not go hand in hand.

Second, beyond reforming the country’s under performing tax collection system, Pakistan must radically address the many gaps surrounding the sliding living conditions of the poorest of the poor. This year’s floods have badly exposed the deep vulnerabilities surrounding the lives of low income communities in many parts of Pakistan. For instance, a large network of local hospitals across rural Pakistan that were neglected over previous decades suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by a spike in demand for services from flood victims.

A similar case can be made for government provided school networks across Pakistan. And last but not the least, the multiple challenges surrounding the agriculture sector have contributed to worsening food security over time.

Pakistan’s case for climate justice will remain incomplete unless deprived communities across the country first receive long overdue justice.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs. He can be reached at:

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