State of Human Rights in Pakistan
Three years into its term of office, the government faces unprecedented criticism. Given complaints about the elected government’s performance, do you think Pakistan was more stable and better governed under Musharraf?
ADH: The past three years have shown us that even a dysfunctional, transitional democracy is preferable to military rule and dictatorship. The government’s legitimacy stems from the constitution and hence it has been bound to uphold the rule of law – even in areas where it may not have suited the interests of the ruling party. Musharraf, in contrast, held power through the barrel of a gun and the difference is quite apparent. Of course, elected institutions need to improve their governance capacity and skills, but we must remain cognizant of the fact that the elected government’s authority remains notional in several areas – particularly those concerning the military and its intelligence agencies. In other areas, for example, the judiciary, the executive has had to cede authority to the appropriate institution even if it does not suit its interests. It is a function of democracy and the pressures of pluralism that Zardari restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to office and has cohabited with him for two years now and accepted the independent status of the judiciary. Just this one development marks a significant shift from the structural authoritarianism that is used to govern Pakistan traditionally which vests all power in the executive. I think we should give the government credit for this. That said, there remain serious issues of military impunity and civilian misgovernance that need to be urgently addressed.
What would say about the rollback of rights friendly legislation such as the Women’s Protection Act and judicial persecution of politicians such as Sherry Rehman who have sought to defend human rights?
I would not say that judicial independence has led to this rollback but the conduct of this institution like any other requires improvement that can only come through meaningful reform. Of course, there are certain judicial decisions that are quite simply deplorable. The Federal Shariat Court verdict on the Women’s Protection Act is one such instance as is the conduct of the Lahore High Court with reference to the Aasia Bibi case and its decision to allow frivolous litigation against Sherry Rehman. Similarly, lower-level judicial support to charge Sherry Rehman under 295 C in Multan amounts to legal persecution. Rehman is a democrat and a symbol of the very best in politics. It is Pakistan’s good fortune that principled and brave politicians such as her are willing to risk their lives to say and do the right thing. The judiciary should be ordering her protection rather than allowing challenges to her right to table legislation and enabling her criminalization under laws that she is seeking to reform. Judicial inaction and culpability have already contributed to ongoing persecution of minorities and the deaths of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. After all this, to be complicit in Sherry Rehman’s harassment reflects abominably on those who are doing so.
Can you clarify what you mean by military impunity? Is it not the government’s job to hold the military accountable?
Of course it is but as of now this has not happened. Such a shift in the institutional balance of power has yet to occur. The fact is that the terms of the transition include “political cover” to the war against the Taliban. The military appears to have made clear to the government that this includes attempted political cover up of its counter-terrorism operations whether in FATA, Swat or in Balochistan. Countless terrorism suspects remain under military detention in Swat. The government gets blamed fordrone strikes by the United States when these strikes are accompanied by persistent claims of large numbers of civilian casualties. But it is the security agencies that withhold access to the conflict areas which prevents independent verification andrefuse to admit that they are not only party to the drone strikes but provide ground intelligence to enable them. And then there is Balochistan where the security establishment continues to perpetrate abuses such as disappearances, torture and kilings. Here the government can be blamed for being complicit in these abuses by changing its 2008 position when it apologized to the Baloch to its position today.
But if the security agencies are to be blamed for many of these abuses why do the media persistently target the government?
Pakistan’s media needs to use its independence responsibly. Unfortunately this is not happening. It targets the government because it does not fear the former. It does not hold the military to account because it is frightened of their power. HRW is of the view that the greatest threat to media freedom emanates today not from the elected government which has shown respect and tolerance as it should for the media. Rather, it stems from the intelligence agencies, non-state actors such as the Taliban and, finally, from the judiciary which has exploited over-broad contempt laws to stifle criticism of the institution.
What can the government do to improve the human rights situation?
Immediately, the government can and should engage in substantive police reform. It also needs to ensure greater transparency in governance by creating non-partisan oversight mechanisms over the length and breadth of government. Corruption cannot be tackled just through a non-partisan anti-corruption body though that is important but rather through transparency at all transactional levels. It needs to shed its policy of appeasing extremism and needs to develop the political will to hold the military and its intelligence agencies to account, all difficulties and risks inherent to the exercise notwithstanding.
First published in The Friday Times, Lahore on April 1, 2011