What ails Pakistan: Drift towards authoritarianism, enforced disappearances & shrinking freedom of speech

This is the second in our series on the SAATH Forum Conference on Pakistan that just concluded in Washington DC.

As we had mentioned, “prominent progressive thinkers and human rights defenders from Pakistan have expressed their grave concern over Pakistan’s drift towards authoritarianism and weakening of country’s civilian institutions as a consequence of systematic expansion of the military’s control over public policy. These views were expressed during a conference titled ‘Pakistan: After the Elections’, organised under the banner of South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH) and hosted by Husain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, and Dr Mohammad Taqi, a US-based senior columnist. More than two dozen Pakistani liberal, progressive, left-leaning public figures from around the world travelled to Washington DC for the moot.”

According to a report in The Daily Times, “The participants raised concern over the lack of credibility of the results of recent general elections in Pakistan, which they noted were ‘one of the most politically engineered elections’. In many ways, the participants noted, the election has compounded Pakistan’s existential challenges emanating from civil-military imbalance, extremism and militancy. During the discussion in the session titled ‘The Crisis of Naya Pakistan’, the participants said Pakistan had strayed further away from being an inclusive, democratic and peaceful polity in 2018 and that its economy was sinking, the opposition was being politically targeted, the media was facing unprecedented curbs and state institutions like the judiciary stood seriously compromised.”

Further, “The participants unequivocally supported the demands made by the Pashtun Tahffuz Movement (PTM) and by the parents of the slain innocent children in the tragic and barbarous attack on the Army Public School in 2014, for making public the findings of the judicial inquiry commission formed to investigate the carnage. They lamented that after almost a year of the extrajudicial killing of Naquibullah Mehsud, the young Pashtun resident of Karachi, the state was still unable to provide justice to his family.”

Furthermore, “Among the major issues discussed during the moot were enforced disappearances of Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi nationalists, shrinking freedom of expression and speech in Pakistan, judicial overreach and resultant weakening of the democratic institutions, the trends of human rights violations in 2018, results of military operations in the Pashtun belt, the plight of the people of Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and the worrying signals coming from some members of federal cabinet about the possible roll back of the 18th constitutional amendment. The participants reiterated that they would actively become part of the mass movement if the government initiates any such step. The 18th constitutional amendment was passed unanimously in 2010 by the parliament of Pakistan and has ensured provincial autonomy and devolution of powers and resources to the provinces.”

A Real Naya Pakistan- Saath Vision?

A really Naya Pakistan would be one where there is civilian supremacy, it is economically and politically stable and is at peace with its neighbors. Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan does not appear to be moving in that direction but a group of progressive Pakistanis under the banner of SAATH Forum are seeking that goal.

South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH), a grouping of prodemocracy Pakistanis co-hosted by Haqqani and US-based columnist Dr Mohammad Taqi, held its 3rd annual conference this weekend December 14-16, in Washington DC.

According to their press release “SAATH conferences were held in London in 2016 and 2017. This year, the conference was scaled down as some of the forum’s Pakistani participants “were barred or intimidated by authorities from participating. Several prominent Pakistani dissidents currently living in various countries gathered here to “discuss ways of ensuring greater support for pluralist ideas, human rights, and democracy in Pakistan.”

Further, “Terrorism and international isolation, not dissent, are the real threats to Pakistan but unfortunately the authorities refuse to recognise that reality, said former Pakistan Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, while opening the two-day deliberative conference titled ‘Pakistan After the Elections.’ Addressing the gathering, Haqqani said that the heavy-handed suppression of diverse views in Pakistan would not end the country’s economic crisis nor would it help the government’s stated purpose of projecting a positive image for the country. “The best way to have a positive image is to build a positive reality, one that is free of the taint of terrorism, external dependence, and lack of democracy,” he said.”

Furthermore, the statement added: “In our discussions, we hope to address questions such as where Pakistan stands in the aftermath of the 2018 elections, what are the consequences to Pakistan of mainstreaming terrorists and terror groups, and how might the weakening voices for reform and a liberal vision be strengthened.”

According to Dr Taqi “freedom-loving Pakistanis needed to join hands “to create space for intellectual and political discourse. The Pakistani press remains in chains, electronic media is being coerced into submission, journalists are being hounded, and the political parties have been tamed into submission, he observed, adding that resistance would continue against the authoritarian rule.”

Whither Pakistan 70 years after UNDHR

Seven decades after the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNHDR) where does the land of Muhammad Ali Jinnah stand. That is the question asked at a public lecture hosted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

 

In a statement issued the HRCP expressed its gravel “concern at the exponential rise in the number of recommendations Pakistan has received from its peers with respect to human rights concerns in the country. In 2008, it received 51 recommendations, of which it accepted 43 and rejected eight. At its second UPR in 2012, Pakistan received 167 recommendations, of which it accepted 126, “noted” 34 and rejected seven. ‘It is encouraging to note that many of the recommendations “supported” in principle under the third UPR relate, among others, to the reduction of poverty and inequality; to making enforced disappearance a criminal offence and ensuring that all allegations of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions are thoroughly investigated; to ensuring that all perpetrators of torture are brought to justice; to ensuring the right to a fair trial for all; and to preventing impunity for crimes against journalists and media workers.”

 

The theme of the lecture organized at the Dorab Patel Auditorium “was to assess Pakistan’s performance during its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2017. Under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, all member states are given the opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to meet their human rights obligations.”

 

Attended by civil society, including students, lawyers, human rights activists and media persons, the HRCP noted with concern “that Pakistan has chosen to “note”, rather than “support” key human rights principles such as reporting the investigation and prosecution of security forces that commit human rights violations and abuses; amending discriminatory laws against marginalised groups, including women and girls and ethnic and religious minorities; protecting the rights of the child more effectively, particularly during counter-terrorism activities; desisting from issuing death sentences and executing juveniles; and taking effective measures to prevent the abuse of blasphemy legislation and the use of violence against religious minorities.”

 

The HRCP urged the state of Pakistan “to commit to its willingness to continue cooperating with the United Nations human rights mechanism, and to apply both in principle and practice the UPR recommendations it has “noted” as well as “supported”. By 2022, the country’s human rights record must be seen to improve substantially – not merely to uphold an international image, but because these principles are part of the state’s moral and responsibility to its citizens and residents under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which it is a signatory.’”

Tahir Dawar: State Must answer says former senator

It is almost one month since the kidnapping and subsequent murder of SP Tahir Dawar, and yet are yet to understand what really happened and why. According to former senator and PPP intellectual, Farhatullah Babar, this case has “raised some serious questions” that the Pakistani state “must answer.”

According to Babar, “The official response from the day Dawar was kidnapped on October 26 till his body was found across the border defies comprehension. It ranged from callous indifference to outright lies to political gimmickry.” There are “some two dozen intelligence agencies working separately under civil and military command structures. Under the National Action Plan (NAP) they are also supposed to work together under the same roof in the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) headed by the prime minister. It should have been possible for them to point out the existence of some foreign hand instead of waiting until the body was found. The reaction of Islamabad police was no different from its reaction to such disappearances and as if investigations were doomed to fail.”

Babar also refers to what he calls “downright comical lies. Talking to the VOA, Prime Minister’s Special Assistant Iftikhar Durrani not only flatly denied any kidnapping but even insisted that SP Dawar was already in Peshawar. When a bewildered anchor expressed surprise that this had not been reported anywhere, Durrani literally ridiculed her. He snubbed her that while sitting in Washington she believed she knew better than him. His confidence was so overpowering that it forced the anchor to retreat into silence.”

Further, when reports of the body found in Afghanistan started circulating on social media, “the official reaction was bizarre. It is photoshop, said one federal minister. The state minister for interior surpassed all; it is a matter of national security and I will not talk about it, he said. Taking the same plea, the information minister also refused to comment. None realized the implications of their words. Citing ‘national security’ implied that Dawar had been detained by security agencies for reasons of national security. Who told the ministers that his disappearance was a matter of national security? Words that once escape the lips cannot be easily recalled. Both ministers will rue their words. Their irresponsible national security mantra will have to be explained.”

Finally, when the body was finally found and brought back to Pakistan, “the policy statement bordered on ridiculous. The minister of state for interior stated on the floor of the House that the agencies failed to detect the movements of the kidnappers because none of the 1,800 security cameras installed in Islamabad had the capability to read number plates or recognize faces of commuters in the vehicles. He called for probing corruption in the purchase of security cameras as a way forward.”

According to Babar, “The perpetrators of the crime have demonstrated frightening capabilities. Besides capabilities of surveillance, kidnapping, holding the victim for almost two weeks, they had the capability to transport the victim, or his body, from Islamabad all the way into Afghanistan, crossing the Punjab, KP, tribal areas and the Pak-Afghan border. None of the scores of security check posts manned by police, paramilitary, Frontier Constabulary, Frontier Corps and the army personnel detected anything.”

Babar ends by stating: “An answer to the question ‘Who killed Dawar in Afghanistan?’ will not be found unless the question who kidnapped him in Islamabad and kept him for days is credibly answered.”

Capitulation of the Pakistani state, once again?

The State in Pakistan is unwilling to accept the reality that the latest protests by the Tehreek e Labbai Pakistan (TLP) demonstrate once again that the state has capitulated to the very forces that it helped create and nurture for the last few decades.

According to veteran human rights activist IA Rahman, the reality is that “through their latest dharna, conservative religio-political forces have tightened their siege of the state of Pakistan. And their next attempt to change the character of the state might be somewhat stronger.”

Tracing the rise of these groups Mr Rahman argues that the “recent buckling down of the state to mobs of the radical right is not the first time it has done so in Pakistan’s history. But the repercussions on the country’s social fabric are cumulative.”

Going back to Partition Rahman asserts that “a number of religious groups called upon the government to replace the democratic foundations of the few-months-old state with theocratic pillars, a proposition the Quaid-i-Azam had repeatedly repudiated before independence and, finally, in his August 1947 speech.”

Further, “Throughout the decades since 1949, the state has been yielding to theocratic forces bit by bit, and the latter have used each concession to press for a further erosion of the democratic character of the state. The custodians of power have chosen to compete with them instead of holding on to the pledges made to the people during the struggle for freedom. … Several instruments have been used by the religio-political lobby to force the state to compromise its principles. The first method was to stoke an anti-Ahmadiyya agitation to persuade the Daultana government of Punjab to bring down the Nazimuddin government at the centre. This was the only time force was used to suppress the challenge to the state, though Khawaja Nazimuddin could stay as prime minister for only a few months more. And the anti-Ahmadiyya agitation for the realisation of theocratic goals continues to this day.

Then, “In 1974 the Bhutto government took the extraordinary step of arming the state with the power to decide who is a Muslim and who is not and claimed to have resolved a 90-year-old problem. The problem is still there and has, indeed, grown bigger. The 1974 decision only enabled General Ziaul Haq to destroy the constitution of 1973 and enforce his illiberal version of Islam. Assuming the leadership of the theocratic lobby, Ziaul Haq created a parallel judicial system, sowed the seeds of sectarianism, fostered intolerance, institutionalised discrimination against minority communities, tried to push society, especially women, back into the mediaeval period, and embroiled Pakistan in the Afghan war — with horrible consequences for our state and society both. As a result, the Muslims of the country have been dividing themselves into sects and subsets, each claiming exclusive power to redefine the state and its citizenship.”

Today, “each attack on the state has had serious repercussions on the country’s social fabric. After each round of clash between the state and its challengers, society has been brutalised and has become more divided, more violent and more intolerant. Take the present case. This time, the challengers had literally no section of the public on their side. But even those who deplored arson and destruction of property, including the religious political parties and individual scholars, did not censure the agitators for their indefensible stand. The public will take its cue from this posture of support to the agitators and that will convince the dharna organisers that they have not lost the battle. It is only a matter of time before they, or their more militant siblings, return to mount a fresh charge against the state.”