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On April 3, when British government decided to put Pakistan on the red list of travel restrictions due to surge in Covid-19 cases, Asad Umar, the head of National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), took to Twitter to question the move, asking if it was based on science or foreign policy.
Even some Muslim members of the UK parliament called into question the decision, insisting that it was discriminatory and not data driven.
The criticism stemmed from the fact that some other countries including India –which now has also been put on the red list – and some European countries had far worse situations in terms of Covid-19 than Pakistan but they had not been put on the red list.
The move had raised suspicion that the British government might have other motives behind putting restrictions on Pakistan.
However, over two weeks after the imposition of the ban, UK High Commissioner Christian Turner has given a detailed explanation and even challenged myths doing the rounds about the red listing.
“This was not a political decision. This was not about politics,” Turner told The Express Tribune in an exclusive interview at his residence in the Diplomatic Enclave. “The decision was based on data and evidence collected not here in Pakistan but in the UK.”
He said the UK tests all arrivals from every country on the second day and the eighth day 8 – a practice that provides it with data. “If this was just about the disease in the country you would simply look at the country which is most affected in the world and put them on and this would not include Pakistan.”
Turner gave three specific reasons as to why Pakistan was put on the red list.
“Firstly, Pakistan was the largest single source of international air travelers into the UK in March; Secondly, Covid positivity amongst those travelers from Pakistan was high – a higher than average percentage of them were testing positive in that day-2 tests.
“Thirdly, our testing showed that some variants of concerns were those variants that we are worried about but were present in passengers from Pakistan including the South African one.”
The British envoy stressed that the decision to place any country on the red list had nothing to do with a Covid situation in a country.
“I can look at the data [to find out] how many cases [have emerged] in Somalia; how many cases in India and how many cases in Pakistan. What concerns us is the traveler to the UK.
“And that’s why we are not relying on the Covid-19 data from Somalia or anywhere else. It’s the numbers that are coming to the UK.”
He strongly dismissed the perception that the decision was meant to punish Pakistan. “There is sort of undertone somehow this is about punishing the country. No, it is not true.”
Turner assured that the red listing does not mean diminishing of what he described as “UK-Pakistan Dosti.” “You accept my headline that this is not political. There is no diminishing of the very close ties and affection between the UK and Pakistan and the UK-Pak dosti,” he remarked.
He said the UK is helping Pakistan in securing the vaccines and helping its healthcare capability. “We have turned about 20 million pounds aid to help Pakistan fight Covid-19.”
When asked, the envoy said he could not give any timeline regarding the lifting of the ban on Pakistan. As a high commissioner, he said he would be “happier’ if Pakistan was removed from the list sooner.
Nawaz Sharif extradition
Last week when Minister for Interior Sheikh Rashid met the British high commissioner, he brought up the issue of bringing back three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from the UK. The Interior minister’s statement suggested that the British envoy’s response was not positive.
When asked about the possibility of Nawaz Sharif being extradited to Pakistan, Turner said under the UK immigration laws he was not authorized to talk about individual cases.
But he then went on to explain how the Pakistan government could secure the extradition of the former prime minister. “The UK and Pakistan do not currently have an extradition treaty and I have said before on the record I will be very pleased to see those negotiations concluded,” he said.
He said extradition of any individual was possible “even without a treaty” provided that Pakistan put a formal request for that.
“So there is a mechanism, called extradition as you can ask questions you can make affidavits but under the UK law and under the Pakistani law the only way two countries can formally request an individual to come back is an extradition request.”
“If an extradition request is made then we will respond absolutely accordingly,” the British high commissioner said. He, however, added that the Pakistani government has not yet formally made a request for the extradition of Nawaz.
“My message on this has not changed. I have said many, many times to many people: we play things with a straight bat; we play by the rule of law – no sweep shots, no googlies, no funny business. We will play this according to our immigration laws with a straight bat,” he stressed.
Britain has been historically part of the overt and covert efforts to seek rapprochement between Pakistan and India. Some even believe that it has a moral obligation to help resolve the longstanding Kashmir dispute because it was Britain’s wrong policies that never let India and Pakistan become friends.
As tensions between Pakistan and India eased in recent months, there have been speculations that other than the UAE, the UK is also involved behind the scene to seek de-escalation in tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
When asked a specific question as to whether the UK was involved in quiet diplomacy, the British high commissioner opted not to respond. However, he went on to say that there was no secret that the UK has been advocating for dialogue between the two countries.
“We have always been clear that Kashmir must be resolved between India and Pakistan in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people,” he said, adding that the people of Kashmir are party to this long standing dispute.
Turner said he and his counterpart in New Delhi have always said: “Please find channels to talk to each other”. According to him, confrontation along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border dividing the disputed Himalayan valley of Kashmir – is in neither country’s strategic interest.
No military solution of Afghan issue
As the US administration announced a withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, there has been concern that Afghanistan may slip into yet another cycle of civil war. Britain also has troops in Afghanistan, which according to the British high commissioner, would leave along with the US troops.
Turner was of the view that like Pakistan, the UK was also absolutely clear that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict.
“All the parties in Afghanistan have got to come together now because the alternative is civil war; further suffering for the people of Afghanistan and further instability for the region and in the neighborhood – something that none of us wants.”
He agreed that the next few months are crucial to determine the future of Afghanistan, stressing that all the Afghan stakeholders would seize the historic opportunity for putting an end to the war.
He acknowledged Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace efforts and dismissed the notion that the country is supporting the Afghan Taliban to achieve its strategic interests. Turner said he found the Pakistani leadership ‘deeply committed’ to the Afghan peace process.
The bilateral trade between the UK and Pakistan is currently around 2.8 billion pounds and one of the big agendas of the current high commissioner is to increase trade, jobs and economic growth. “The potential is absolutely enormous,” Turner said when asked about the prospects of bilateral trade.
“I think you would have talked to many of my predecessors and they would have talked about security.
“I am saying unapologetically that the success for the UK and Pakistan in our relationship is around the economy and trade. Our current bilateral trade is about 3 billion pound a year. We would like to double that. I think that is entirely achievable,” he said.
He identified renewable energy, health care and education as some of the potential sectors where British companies could come and invest since they have expertise in those areas.
He said the British government also has a “credit guarantee facility” to offer “cheap loans” to companies doing business between the two countries. “So for Pakistani businessmen only need a 20% deal to link back to the UK and they can apply for these loans.”
Unlike the US, British government is also keen to become a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The British high commissioner travelled to Gwadar to get the firsthand account and explore the prospects of the British companies investing in CPEC.
“I would be pleased to see British companies investing in CPEC,” he said.
However, he had a word of caution: “There is danger that sometimes we talk about things like CPEC if it is the great game and its territory and the influence is being carved up.”
“Pakistan needs investment if that investment is being done in a way that benefits Pakistan.
“In terms of CPEC that means things like good labour laws; skills are being transferred, environment terms are being met, the debt structure is positive not punitive. Why should any other country object? We want to be part of that.”
“I have been clear if it is done in the right way I think CPEC would benefit Pakistan and I like the UK to be a part of that,” he said. “It does not have to be binary choices.”
He said Pakistan has longstanding ties with China.
“So all countries have to deal and engage with China which is going to become third of the global economy right in the middle of the century. Pakistan as a neighbor will have to do the same. Why Pakistan should have to make binary choices between that and other countries.”
England cricket team tour
The British high commissioner, who himself is a keen cricket fan, confirmed that the England cricket team would undertake the first official tour to Pakistan since 2008 to play three T20 internationals in October. England women's cricket team would also visit Pakistan, he added.
“In the autumn of 2022, the England cricket team is planning to undertake a full bilateral tour that will include test, one-days and T20 international matches,” the British high commissioner said.