May 11, 2013 was a watershed for Pakistan. For the first time, power was transferred from one democratically-elected civilian government to another. This historic election was marked by a record voter turnout, with women’s participation in the election reaching an all-time high.
In a country where politics is marred by political assassinations and attacks against minorities, this election means the population has made the choice to reject terrorism and stand up for democracy. The new government of Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif must now harness the goodwill evident in the elections to build on democratic reforms.
Australia supported the Election Commission of Pakistan in conducting the elections, which were regarded by most observers as the most open in Pakistan’s history. We will also support the new government in its efforts to progress good governance and economic development as it faces the challenges ahead. Australia’s total bilateral development assistance for the 2012-13 financial year is estimated to reach $85.7 million.
In the last two years, Australia’s education assistance has reached around 445 schools and 239,000 students, including, at least, 91,000 girls. We have also awarded over 200 AusAID Australia Award scholarships, offering promising students the opportunity to study at Australia’s finest institutions. More broadly, our development assistance is helping to improve governance, health and rural livelihoods across Pakistan.
But the threat of terrorism continues to be an obstacle to progress in Pakistan. As a front-line state, the impact of terrorism on Pakistan is severe. Rising sectarian violence has impacted the most vulnerable groups in society. In addition to the civilian toll, the lives of many thousands of soldiers, police and security personnel have been lost. The damage to infrastructure has been immense and the cost can also be measured in lost development and economic growth.
On human rights, all violence against religious and ethnic minorities must be condemned. I urge the Government of Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to justice. I will continue to engage the new government on these issues and provide support where appropriate. Australia will also continue to support human rights at the grassroots level in Pakistan through AusAID’s Human Rights Grants Scheme and other programmes.
This year, we are working with the Jinnah Institute to design a human rights curriculum for schools across the country. In 2011 and 2012, we worked with local partners to promote interfaith harmony and human rights in Southern Punjab.
We have also worked alongside the Acid Survivors Foundation to promote the rights of women. And we are working with local partners to enhance human rights training for judicial academies, so that judges at all levels have a clear understanding of international and national human rights frameworks.
Australia’s relationship with Pakistan goes back a long way. Long before we established diplomatic relations in 1947, the Australian Defence Force was sending students to the Quetta Command and Staff College — the first Australian student attended the college in 1907 and many more have followed. On the other side, around 150 years ago, camel herders from modern-day Pakistan were Australia’s first Muslim migrants and worked with explorers to open Australia’s vast interior to settlement.
Our ties today are stronger than ever. Over 33,000 Australians now claim Pakistani ancestry. In 2012, there were 11,000 Pakistani students enrolled in Australia’s universities and colleges — an increase of around 17 per cent on 2011 — making Pakistan our 10th largest source of foreign enrolments in 2012. Our engagement on counterterrorism, people smuggling and development has also increased.
Pakistan’s historic elections prime the relationship for further growth. We will continue to work together to face the challenges and for economic growth and development. I have no doubt that the Pakistani community in Australia will play a key role in this continued evolution.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2013.