Only as good as our word

Justice Asif Saeed Khosa

“A man is only as good as his word.” My father told me this in all seriousness one day when I was trying to back out of a commitment I had made to a neighbor. It was a bit of drudgery that I had agreed to help out with, and since then my classmate had managed to get tickets to something much more enjoyable. I tried explaining to my father that when I agreed to help, I didn’t know the tickets were going to appear. Circumstances had changed. Circumstances were extenuating. And it wasn’t really that important, anyway, I argued. My father stared at me in stony silence, then spoke: “If you cannot be trusted with something unimportant, how can anyone ever trust you with something that is?” I rode my bike to meet my friend and give him the bad news. He’d have to give my ticket to someone else. I fulfilled my promise, but I did so under silent protest. My friends were having fun and I was tired and dirty. Time works a funny kind of magic, though. If I had backed out of my commitment, I would look back on that day with shame. Actually, I hadn’t thought about this moment in a long time. It came back to me unexpectedly, though, when I read a report about, of all things, military courts.

On Tuesday, Supreme Court directed Attorney General Salman Aslam Butt to submit information about certain military court convictions. What grabbed my attention was an exchange between counsel for Lahore High Court Bar Association Hamid Khan and Justice Asif Saeed Khosa.

The bench took exception when Khan pointed out that Pakistan is signatory to international treaties to uphold fundamental rights.

‘We cannot allow international treaties to dictate our local laws,” said another member of the bench Justice Asif Saeed Khosa.

I am not a lawyer or an expert on international treaties, but if we sign an international treaty, doesn’t that mean we are committing ourselves to what it says? I agree that Court decisions shouldn’t be dictated by foreign laws, but if we sit down and negotiate a treaty, and we agree and sign it, that is not the same thing. It is not a foreign law, it is an agreement we have made on our own. If we cannot be trusted to live up to our agreements with one international treaty, why should anyone trust us with any other treaty? If we go against treaties we have signed to uphold fundamental rights, why should China trust that we will uphold economic or security agreements?

Justice Khosa’s statement is troubling because it could be interpreted that he does not believe we have to stand by our word when it comes to international treaties. Then are these treaties even worth the paper that they are written on? The Court should issue a statement clarifying the meaning of Justice Khosa’s remark so that our international reputation is not unintentionally damaged and our diplomats can continue to represent Pakistan from a position of strength, not one of suspicion.

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