Norway’s Envoy in Pakistan, Leif Larsen in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times
Mr. Leif Larsen is the Ambassador of Norway to Islamic Republic of Pakistan. He started his career as trainee in Foreign Affairs in 1984 and his first posting was in Saudi Arabia where he served as a secretary (1986 – 1988), the next two years he served in the same position at the Norwegian embassy in Iceland. After that, he got into security and defense policy – a sector that had particularly interested me. He worked on NATO issues /security issues for 18 years.
Mr.Larsen had two postings in Brussels from 1990 to 2008. He served, as a Senior Executive Officer Political Division (NATO) Ministry of Foreign Affairs Oslo. His second period, which started in 2001 in Brussels, included the time around and after 9/11 attack and the NATO engagement in Afghanistan.
Mr. Larsen in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times International News Network’s, Bureau Chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amjad Hilal,spoke about the Norway‘s engagement in Pakistan and its positive role in the development and talked about the overall issues that Pakistani people are facing.
Excerpts below give us an insight into the interesting talk that followed:
Thank you sir, for your time today and before we start could you please tell us a little about yourself?
This is my first posting as an Ambassador in this part of the World. I am interested in doing things that I like. I started my career as trainee in Foreign affairs in 1984. My first posting was in Saudi Arabia where I served as a secretary (1986 – 1988), the next two years I served in the same position at the Norwegian embassy in Iceland. After that, I got into security and defense policy – a sector that had particularly interested me. I worked on NATO issues /security issues for 18 years.
I had two postings in Brussels from 1990 to 2008. I served, as a Senior Executive Officer Political Division (NATO) Ministry of Foreign Affairs Oslo. My second period, which started in 2001 in Brussels, included the time around and after 9/11 attack and the NATO engagement in Afghanistan.
Before NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan Europeans knew very little about Afghanistan. It was a great learning period during which many mistakes were made and many experiences were gained. Before becoming the Ambassador to Pakistan, I served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Oslo. During this period I participated in shaping long term support for Afghanistan that laid strong focus on civilian assistance and development. And that brings me to this region.
Its an interesting, challenging place. I have always said that Norway does not have long term interest in Afghanistan as such. That is my personal opinion. We are now there firstly as part of the NATO engagement and secondly as part of the long term international interest in Afghanistan. But, I do believe that we have a long-term interest in Pakistan.
One of the obvious facts for our long-term interest in Pakistan is that we have a large Pakistani community, around 35000 people- first, second and third generation combined living in Oslo. In fact now I have stopped considering them as Pakistanis living in Norway, I now consider them as Norwegians with Pakistani backgrounds. The first generation of Pakistani’s, which came to Norway in the late 60’s and early 70’s, second generation and their children and now you have the third generation that are born, raised and who are really more Norwegian than Pakistani. They have a Pakistani name and culture in Norway, they happen to be Muslims, but they are integrated into Norway than Pakistan.
This is my belief. And these diaspora, if you call it that, creates a special link between Norway and Pakistan. It’s a special experience for us because we are used to calling ourselves an immigrant nation. Between 1825 and 1920, more than a million Norwegians immigrated to the United states and we have always been proud of the Norwegian heritage settling in the United states. Now we are well in the opposite position, where we are an immigrant nation receiving a large number of people from other countries and cultures into Norway. It’s been a little bit of turn around, but that sort of links strengthens our relationship with Pakistan. Nowadays you can find Pakistani background Norwegians involved in all sectors of Norwegian life-business, education, politics, and media and in every other sector. In the parliament there are Pakistani background Norwegians serving, in the previous parliament the Speaker had Pakistani background, the previous the Minister of Culture had a Pakistani background. If you look at the politicians, you can say that these are not Pakistani politicians talking about Pakistani issues, they are Norwegian politicians participating in mainstream politics. They are integrated into Norway.
Norway has always been supportive of Pakistan and the projects carried out by Norway in Pakistan have benefited Pakistan in many ways, however there is this looming question about where the bilateral relationship between these two countries is heading, so, how do you see the relationship between these two countries?
I think we have a lot of common interests: fighting extremism and terrorism, working for a better World on a global basis. I see the need now to maintain the links that we have and strengthen them. A challenge in that regard is that many Norwegians have sort of linked Pakistan with Afghanistan. Norway’s engagements in Pakistan is changing and running down the road after a certain time people will say okay now we have other challenges with Russia, Ukraine, IS in Iraq, global warming issues and things like that. So the challenge now is to strengthen the links we have. And, we need to continue to work on it. We have a very good relationship. Our Foreign Minister was here less than a month ago for talks in Islamabad with the Pakistan Foreign minister and the GHQ (General Head Quarter) was involved in it. My impression from those talks is that we looked into many issues and we have realise that we have lots of common interests. We have a foundation to building a good and sturdy relation. I think that Norway has a good image in Pakistan and the challenge is to build that up.
I see Pakistan that faces many challenges without any doubt and everybody is aware of that .You have extremism and terrorism, which needs to be fought. There are energy challenges, that affects ordinary people and the economic development of the country. I also think that there is a need to solidify democracy in Pakistan. Important steps have already been taken. The previous parliamentary elections was a very important first step as for the first time one government was replaced by another through a democratic means. The recent debate that attached importance to parliamentary system and the constitution, among others are important. I think there is a foundation building for democracy here in this country, which needs to be strengthened. Though the country faces a number of challenges I see that Pakistan has a tremendous potential in terms of resources and people, which would and should and can be harnessed to over come them. However, security and instability remain the major challenges faced by this country.
Like you mentioned earlier there are approximately 39,000 people of Pakistani descent living in Norway and the Pakistani diaspora there makes up around 0.8 of the total population in Norway. However at a time when questions regarding improper integration of immigrants in Europe arising,how would you say their integration has been in Norway and how are they adapting to the Norwegian way of life-lifestyle, society and politics?
First generation Pakistanis living in Norway are Pakistani in terms of their lifestyle. The Second generation has one leg in each culture and the third generation Pakistani Norwegian are more Norwegian than Pakistani. It is a natural development as the third generation were born, groomed, educated and cultured in Norway. You won’t notice the difference between the third generation Norwegian Pakistani and other Norwegians. It does not mean that they have given up their Pakistani culture. This is a subjective view from my side and my impression is that more than 90 percent Pakistanis are well integrated. I have heard that the third generation Pakistani origin Norwegians do feel alienated in Norwegian society. But this is not specific to the Pakistani community only.
Hadia Tajik (aged 31), our former minister for culture, is a third generation Pakistani origin Norwegian. She is from a small village Bjorheimsbygd, a community of around two to three hundred people in Strand, Rogaland. Norwegians have two sub Norwegian languages that differ basically in terms of accent. One I would call is the central language that is spoken and written in town and city areas. The other has many regional dialects and is mostly spoken in the peripheries. But Tajik speaks that language that shows the extent to which Pakistani are integrated into Norwegian life style.
However, there are some challenges with this integration process. Some Pakistani Norwegians follow their own culture in Norway. Some of their traditions conflict with the values that Norwegians embrace, like forced/arrange marriage culture as Norway guarantees its citizen the right to freedom, which includes marriage of your own will. Some feel that their children are becoming too Norwegian and send their children to Pakistan.
It is important to remember that up until early sixties we had the same level of economy as Greece and Italy have today. We do not say that we were very wealthy at the time but we were not poor actually. We were not super rich either. But today I think we are in a very good economic situation compared to the most of the European countries. We are better of than them. But the fact that we found all these oil and gas in Norway became an important factor, of course, in uplifting our economy.
I remember my own town, the central of oil exploration industry in the present day, was once, in mid sixties, a poor town that depended on very few industries. But, now it is blooming, and expensive to live in. In my personal opinion, the most important factor to make a country is good governance and we have had that. We have and had politicians, irrespective of what party they were or are from, or the political directions they came or come from, they had and have one goal of making the country a better place to live in. Another factor that assisted in Norway’s development are the labor organizations. They have been strong and yet very responsible. And the third thing is the Norwegian private business community that has been very sensible of their own responsibility. We call it a three-party system— the Government, the Unions and Private business – that have been working together for the nation’s development. These three dimensions have a broad consensus in Norway on the direction the country should move forward in. This broad consensus in Norway is a strong social contract between the governed and the governing. The people pay taxes because they believe that the government secures their best interest and the government corresponds to their interest. In the end, social contract between the government, government organization and the people is and has been the basis for the development of Norway.
Like Norway, Pakistan too predominantly depends on hydro-electricity, but unlike Norway, Pakistan has been facing a never-ending power crisis and power cuts across the country are a common phenomenon. Norway is also known for its expertise in Hydro Electricity and the management of natural resources. How do you think Norway can assist Pakistan in harnessing these resources, to overcome the energy crisis here?
Pakistan must make itself an attractive country to invest in because we are talking about commercial investments that the Norwegian government cannot dictate to invest in Pakistan. To pave for the commercial investment from Norwegian firms to invest in Pakistan, it should create business conducive environment for the business community, must portray itself attractive enough for investment by addressing security issues and by providing a guarantee that whatever is built, will not be blown up by somebody. Pakistan has to ensure security for its investors, create an environment of belief that it has a good system that treats the business community with impartiality. Summing up, Pakistan has to ensure and take the international business community in confidence that it has to secure a market that ensures their business. This is the biggest challenge for its development.
Despite a large population of people of Pakistani descent living in Norway the trade between the two countries has not been too significant, can you tell us a little about the trade situation between the two countries, factors behind the lag in trade between Pakistan and Norway and what kind of plans, if any do you have in improving trade between Pakistan and Norway?
I am not certain about 2013 and 2014 figures but trade between Pakistan and Norway has been minimal with 10 million dollars Norwegian exports to Pakistan and 50 million imports from Pakistan. Geographical location has been a set back for trade between two countries. Most of the Norwegian industries target European, Nordic, North American and to some extent the Asian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and a little of the Indian market. Despite its geographic location, it is harder to trade with Pakistan than with India. Even though Pakistan in on the Norwegian market map, what matters is the image of market. Considering our interest to grow trade with Pakistan, we are planning to open a honorary consulate at Lahore and in Karachi to increase and expand business links between the two countries. We have plans to bring business communities from both nations together before the summer and also to inform the Norwegian state authorities about the challenges and business prospects in Pakistan.
To initiate a dialogue in this regard is my initial step, though I lack a commercial counselor and along with possessing limited expertise. The most important thing is to tell the Norwegian business representatives and authorities Pakistan has considerable business possibilities. Commercial assessment of the Pakistani situation is an important perquisite for this and such an assessment should ensure that profit is possible here, and it’s the Pakistani government who should pave way for creating such conditions.
Norway has witnessed exceptional economic growth in the past few decades can you tell us a little about the practices that your country adopted in strengthening its economic sector and what kind of lesson can Pakistan learn from its example?
Low inflation is something, which is common for all countries in Europe but as we talked earlier, political parties, industry, government and unions cooperation is very important. These three parties need to sit and agree on the framework for the regional economy . They need to agree on the challenges and possibilities of Norwegian economy and on that basis they need to agree on how much of the regional economy can be balanced. It is always the Unions’ work to ask for high salary and the company can always say that they cannot afford it. So, they need to get together and negotiate while the government plays an intermediary role in bringing them together. This a three-part cooperation and is important for the framework of the economy. Norway has a good balance in these terms and that is the reason we have low inflation. How Pakistan should tackle its situation, is up to Pakistan.
Norway has engagements in peace process in Europe, Middle East, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Columbia, Guatemala and the Philippines. Norway’s general approach is playing the role of a facilitator between the parties that are engaged in a conflict. But the basis for Norway’s engagement has always been that we have to be asked for our mediation by both the parties. Norway is a small country and we do not have a long-term strategic interest countries like USA, France and China. These countries have a long-term strategic interests. We never intervene amidst crisis between two parties, both the parties have to agree to have us as mediators, facilitators, interlocutors and so we are ready to play that role but not every place and every time, the resources for that are very limited.
The primary goal for the Norwegian government and its development policy is to support education especially in case for girls and women. This policy is relevant to the embassy in Pakistan where our primary goal is to support Pakistan in the education sector, especially the education of girls and women. 22 percent of the development budget of this embassy is dedicated to education sector, which is channelized through some big partners that support technical education in Pakistan. We are working together with European Union, and Germany on this. I would say that we are extremely happy that Malala got the Noble Peace Prize as a symbol of what it is possible to achieve and also to convey the message in terms of the importance of education for girls. Pakistan in general should be proud of Malala. She is also a symbol what a country can achieve. If you provide the education to a girl, she can contribute to the building of this country.
Pakistan‘s Heritage is a priority for us and we are supporting to preserve it. We feel that in the present situation Pakistan should be made and it should feel proud of its past. We are working with the ‘Agha Khan Foundation’, as a major Partner because they have the expertise, which we do not have. As part of this project we are working on restoring old buildings, secondly reviving old building techniques and thirdly providing local employment opportunities while transforming these sites into hotels. We are also engaged with the ‘Agha Khan Foundation’ in Lahore to restore building in old cities. In general Pakistan is going through a multiple challenges and the people of Pakistan should be proud of their history, culture and heritage.
Despite its rich cultural heritage and very scenic tourist destinations, travel advisories usually give a negative view on Pakistan. And, tourists are advised not to travel to Pakistan by many travel advisories across the World, what do you have to say about this, as a diplomat living in Pakistan?
The problem again here is the security situation. In terms of tourism Pakistan has a great potential but for an ordinary Norwegian tourist if he feels the risk of being blown up while traveling to Lahore or Peshawar, so he will go to Agra instead. Coming back to the image of Pskistan, insecurity and instability are very important issues, which need to be addressed.
We do not have specific support for that in Pakistan but Norway is providing a lot of support to the Global Alliance in terms of vaccination and campaigns. We also provide a lot of money to the UN system. So, in an indirect way we do support Pakistan and other countries in combating Polio, but we do not support Pakistan directly in this regard.
We talked about problems and challenges Pakistan is currently facing, I would now like to direct your attention towards a more personal point of view. The next question is a question we ask to all our dignitaries–What do human rights mean to you?
Human rights to me is that my personal rights must be respected. I mean not to be arrested without any cause and if I am arrested I have the right to be represented by a lawyer and should get a fair trail. My fiscal rights must be respected- that I must not be tortured in any way. I have the right to express myself freely. Freedom of expression is very important along with other rights that make me feel free.
How do you see media freedom and freedom of expression in Pakistan?
On one hand I feel that Pakistani media is vibrant that they have so many news channels, and newspapers. I have read columns in Pakistani newspapers that openly criticize the government or political parties. On the other hand there is a tragic condition of journalists that includes their murders. It is all about the insecurity and instability influxes. I must say it is a mixed picture. I think that Pakistan in any way is the country where freedom of expression as such is limited and has difficulties in expressing freely on all issues.
I think basically a part of it is true when it comes to the problem of extremism and terrorism.. But along with that Pakistan has an image problem. International media only concentrates on sort of bad issues in Pakistan while overlooking positive and good issues. So, Pakistan is facing two challenges at the moment. First the country is facing challenges inside and secondly a bad-image in the international media. These needs to be tackled and an image of the country that shows that Pakistan is more than terrorism and extremism should be floated. The potential of the country should be strengthened and its profile should be balanced. Due to this Pakistan authorities, people and also its diplomats like us who represent our country in Pakistan, are facing challenges in presenting a balanced picture of Pakistan.
What message do you have for our global readers?
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