Dawn Editorials 11th June 2023

US double standards

IN a major blow for Julian Assange, a UK high court has denied the WikiLeaks founder permission to appeal his extradition order, a decision which his family says brings him “dangerously close” to being taken to the US where he faces criminal charges under the Espionage Act. Though his team has vowed to launch a new appeal, the high court not only refused his appeal, but in a separate order, denied Mr Assange permission to appeal and challenge the dismissal of other parts of his case. In early 2021, a UK judge had rejected a US request to extradite Mr Assange, as it found such a move would be “oppressive” to his mental health. But that decision was overturned 11 months later after the US gave assurances that his rights would not be violated.

America’s relentless pursuit of Mr Assange speaks volumes for its hypocrisy on the subject of press freedom and human rights. While it positions itself as a crusader for democracy and a free media, the Assange case is a clear example of how a whistleblower is being punished for putting Washington’s dark truths before the world, which is unlikely to forget the facts unveiled by WikiLeaks. By making public internal and classified documents originating from US embassies around the world, Mr Assange exposed the reality of America’s foreign policy. Among other things, the leaks unearthed the horrors of war, civilian casualties and military abuse meted out by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Harvard Business Review had said at the time that the disclosures were “historic, if not seismic”. The American government’s pursuit of Mr Assange means that investigative journalists and whistleblowers who publish information the US wants to hide will be subjected to the same hunt. It is evident that the case against Mr Assange is politically motivated. As a country that lectures the world on rights and values, the US should really restrain itself.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2023

Gathering storm

ALTHOUGH experts had earlier said that the very severe storm Biparjoy was unlikely to significantly affect Pakistan, the weatherman now asserts that, as per fresh data, the country’s coastal areas may be vulnerable to the cyclone.

At the time of writing, Biparjoy was barrelling through the Arabian Sea, and was a little less than 1,000km from the Pakistan coast. According to weather models, there are two likely paths the storm can take, both with the potential to affect Pakistan: one projection sees Biparjoy headed for the Oman/Makran coast, while the other predicts the cyclone hitting the Gujarat/Sindh shore.

Biparjoy is likely to make landfall by June 15, which gives the authorities plenty of time to prepare, though the effects of the coming storm are likely to start impacting weather patterns in southern parts of the country from early next week. As per the Met Office, these include the potential for heavy rainfall, “flooding in the coastal areas” and high winds.

While panic should be avoided, the state needs to prepare for the consequences should the storm hit the coastline with intensity. The relevant government bodies have started issuing statements, while fishermen have been told to avoid heading out to sea. Moreover, in Karachi the authorities have begun to restrict public access to the beach.

However, as Met officials have pointed out, squally winds pose a danger to weak structures. In this regard, plenty of billboards and hoardings remain in Karachi, despite a court order calling for their removal. In the event that strong winds batter the coast, flying billboards are likely to prove deadly.

The state should take no chances where public safety is concerned and have contingency plans ready in case of flooding and strong winds. Also many parts of Karachi — particularly the Defence area as well as other localities — remain dug up for roadworks. It is hoped that the civic authorities have equipment ready to drain water from these under-construction thoroughfares.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure along the Makran coast in Balochistan is poor. Plans need to be in place to evacuate vulnerable populations to safer places till the storm subsides.

The government should launch a public-awareness campaign through mainstream and social media warning populations along the coast about potential hazards, and what to do in case of emergency situations if Biparjoy does crash into Pakistan’s coast.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2023

Struggling to pay

AS experts and analysts pored over the budget for FY2024, the consensus that emerged late Friday was that the government had thrown caution to the wind. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s budget speech lacked specifics regarding how the country’s managers would balance their books as the government went about jacking up its expenditures.

It was, therefore, being hoped that some of those important questions would be answered in the finance minister’s post-budget press conference, an annual ritual in which the incumbent defends the government’s budget proposals before journalists asking probing questions.

However, well before the post-budget interaction could take place, Mr Dar managed to ignite a new controversy by dropping a bombshell during a television appearance: Pakistan was considering restructuring its debt.

The ‘revelation’ startled many as it was the first direct admission by the government that it may be unable to meet its obligations in present conditions.

No wonder, then, that the question-and-answer session during the post-budget press conference was dominated by that concern. Mr Dar ‘clarified’ that Pakistan only planned to approach bilateral creditors for restructuring talks — mainly, other governments that have extended Pakistan loans — and that it would not be seeking ‘haircuts’ or write-offs; in lay terms, no concession on outstanding liabilities, but a renegotiation of the timeframe in which liabilities could be settled and/or if the loans could be restructured.

Mr Dar also insisted that multilateral creditors — the Paris Club — would be paid back on time, as it “would not be dignified” to tell them “that we cannot pay”. Importantly, he stressed that he saw no need for the restructuring of domestic debt, allaying one of the biggest concerns that had arisen after his TV appearance.

However, as multiple experts pointed out, Mr Dar cannot realistically expect bilateral creditors to agree to restructure their debt without the IMF on board.

And, given Mr Dar’s public attitude regarding the IMF these past few days, it seems very doubtful that the two are or will be on the same page anytime soon.

What was the point, then, of suddenly triggering speculation on a sensitive topic when his own government had been insisting that ‘all is well’? Only Mr Dar can answer that question.

Given the number of times PML-N leaders have claimed in recent days that their party’s biggest achievement is ‘saving’ Pakistan from default, it boggles the mind to realise that it may have, instead, set it up for even greater challenges.

This budget, if it is passed in its present form, could make it even more difficult for this government or a future one to negotiate with the IMF. Add to that the speculation triggered by the debt restructuring talk, and no other international creditors will be eying Pakistan favourably. Mr Dar, what have you done?

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2023

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