Syed Akbaruddin is the man widely credited with infusing the idea of 'digital diplomacy' into India's Ministry of External Affairs while serving as the ministry's spokesperson. It was in April last year that Vikas Swarup replaced Akbaruddin in this role and took the MEA's social media outreach to the next level.
What became of Akbaruddin?
Not a whole lot. He only took up the role of India's permanent representative at the United Nations in January this year. Only.
And ever since, he's been eloquently and lucidly laying out India's case on the floor of the world body, taking very few prisoners and suffering even fewer fools. One of the more shining examples of the fiery articulations of India's viewpoint by Akbaruddin came at the high-level "UN@70 Human Rights at the centre of the global agenda" on Wednesday.
The speech is recommended viewing:
Or if you'd prefer, recommended reading:
It was a landmark speech for three key reasons:
1. It was the ideal expression of India's simmering frustration that had been threatening to spill over for a while
2. It told our neighbour exactly what it needed to hear
3. It provided the perfect example of how to make an argument — starting broad and zooming in on the target
Considering the theme was human rights, it made sense to speak uncompromisingly about the state of human rights in the world. It also set the right tone for what was to come:
While much of the success of the human rights agenda has been achieved because of its underlying consensus, unanimity is often difficult to achieve because of complexities and inherent contradictions on many other issues. For instance between individual rights and common good; the role of state sovereignty; the relative merits of pursuing civil vs political vs more expansive rights; the highly divergent contexts and immediate concerns of the UN member states, whose number itself has multiplied four times in the last seven decades; emphasis on thematic vs country-specific efforts; and the politicisation and select targeting of countries. (emphasis added)
By laying out these contradictions, Akbaruddin not only highlighted the problems, but demonstrated his understanding of why these incongruities exist.
While on the subject of 'why', he went on to succinctly outline the sort of global situation that creates the shrinking of human rights:
The challenges of poverty eradication, armed-conflict, terrorism, democracy deficit and impunity continue to deprive millions of people from full enjoyment of their human rights. Democracy, good governance, rule of law and access to justice and civil society engagement are essential for safeguarding fundamental freedoms and promoting and protecting human rights for all.
For those in the know, the phrases 'democracy', 'good governance', 'rule of law' and 'access to justice and civil society engagement' were probably a dead giveaway about what was to come next. But, he minced no words in stating that human rights cannot be protected in the absence of those elements.
And where are those elements most prominently absent?
In answering that question came Akbaruddin's coup de grâce as he addressed one of the biggest causes for the shrinking of human rights in our region: Pakistan.
Regrettably, earlier today we have seen an attempt at misuse of this UN platform.
That can be read as the little jab that comes moments before a boxer lands a haymaker square on his opponent's jaw.
The attempt came from Pakistan; a country that covets the territory of others; a country that uses terrorism as state policy towards that misguided end; a country that extols the virtues of terrorists and that provides sanctuary to UN-designated terrorists; and a country that masquerades its efforts as support for human rights and self determination.
There's that haymaker. Gone was the "India strongly condemns state-sponsored terrorism" of old. This was a full-frontal, fire-breathing, barnstormer of an accusation.
In 55 words, Akbaruddin spelt out what is arguably on the mind of a majority of Indians and millions others from other countries. Also, there's no way this can be considered to be an unprovoked lashing-out, because in the days leading up to Akbaruddin's speech, Pakistan had made statements that, it can be argued, sought to take advantage of the situation unfolding in the Kashmir Valley after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani. "India cannot suppress the voice of Kashmiris — who are struggling for their just right of self-determination by using brutal force and committing human rights violations in the Occupied Kashmir," said Pakistan's advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz.
Let's look past the sheer bizareness of Aziz's reference to 'Occupied Kashmir'. Akbaruddin's haymaker targeted this exact sentiment that is expressed by Pakistan every time there is violence in Kashmir — the notion that the actions of a few militants in some way represent the will of the people of Kashmir.
But Akbaruddin didn't stop there:
Pakistan is the same country whose track record has failed to convince the international community to gain membership of the Human Rights Council in this very Session of the UNGA. The international community has long seen through such designs. Cynical attempts, like the one this morning therefore, find no resonance in this forum or elsewhere in the United Nations.
The attempt 'this morning' presumably refers to Pakistan's attempts to raise the issue of India's 'brutalities' with the United Nations Human Rights Council, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the European Union at the UN.
And then came the Muhammad Ali-esque post-fight jig:
As a diverse, pluralistic and tolerant society, India’s commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights is enshrined in its founding principles and we remain strongly committed to the promotion and protection of all human rights for all through pursuit of dialogue and cooperation.
A nice and classy way to go out. But what does it all mean in the long run?
Absolutely nothing. That's right, nothing at all.
Akbaruddin's speech doesn't mean the Sartaj Azizes of the world will run and hide. If anything, they'll come back with more venom and spite the next time. It doesn't mean that terrorism will cease to exist. It doesn't mean that other countries will suddenly begin to call Pakistan out on its antics.
International diplomacy, as its practitioners state, isn't about overnight changes. The value of these statements by India's permanent representative at the UN lies in the fact that it put India's position out there in clear and crisp manner, by tying it into the issue of human rights. Not many countries will feel much empathy for India's suffering in light of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
But human rights is a language in which most countries are fluent — even if they don't practice it themselves.
Couching the Pakistan issue within the narrative of human rights is a way to get the world's ear in a meaningful way.
And while Akbaruddin may have won this bout for India, the big question is whether this victory will help the country win the tournament (to push this analogy further forward)?
It's hard to say, but it's a good start.