‘Greater rights abuses will ensue unless Pakistan’s elected institutions assert themselves’

An interview of – Ali Dayan Hasan (Director, Human Rights Watch) taken by me, published in TFT December 30 – January 05, 2012 – Vol. XXIII, No. 46

Q. HRW has consistently commented on civil-military relations in Pakistan. Why is this aspect of Pakistan’s politics so important for human rights?
Since 2008, Pakistan has made yet another attempt at a transition from direct military rule to rights-respecting constitutional governance. But history teaches us that this moment is as fleeting as it is special. It would be nave to assume that the 2008 general election has transformed power relations in the country. Pakistan remains a praetorian state structured and geared to service, above all, the needs of a military that remains every bit as convinced as ever that Pakistan’s national interest is synonymous with its institutional priorities and the preservation of its position as the final arbiter of political power and patronage. Indeed, Pakistan’s foreign and national security policies are primarily controlled by the military. In the absence of civilian oversight, and given the military’s history, greater abuses will ensue unless Pakistan’s elected institutions assert themselves.

Q. What are the worrying flashpoints in HRW’s view?
It is hardly a secret that the government and the military are engaged in both a legal and political confrontation over the so-called Memogate affair. HRW finds it reassuring that both the Supreme Court Chief Justice and Army chief General Kiyani have ruled out military intervention. Indeed all arms of the state must act within the constitutionally determined ambit and in aid of legitimate civilian rule. In this context, justice must both be done and be seen to be done. Pakistan desperately needs a full democratic cycle and a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian administration to another. Should this process be derailed, the constitutional safeguards and legal rights protections created since 2008 may suffer irreparable damage.

Q. Does HRW have a position on the Memo affair?
No. We do not. This is a political matter over which some parties have seen fit to approach the Supreme Court. So long as the matter is resolved within the ambit of the law and without prejudice, there should be no problem.
However, stakeholders need to consider whether courts are the most appropriate forum to settle political disputes or if that is counter-productive. Second, whatever mechanism for investigation is decided, it must proceed with strict neutrality and due process ensuring that no claim of bias can withstand scrutiny. Finally, all parties to the so-called Memogate affair must understand that a legal dispute cannot be made the vehicle for truncating parliamentary or presidential terms through the backdoor or as a mechanism for subverting civilian rule.

Q. Has civilian rule improved the rights situation and if so how?
The civilian government performance has been patchy in terms of rights protections. On the positive side, parliament has been very active and has passed some very impressive legislation. Most significantly, this includes the 18th amendment and some of the most progressive legislation in South Asia to end sexual harassment and to protect women. It is also true that Sindh and Punjab have enjoyed unprecedented political freedom and pluralism during this period. However, in areas where the military is an actor  such as FATA and Balochistan, the rights situation n remains dismal. The military also remains the principal threat to media freedom. To a large extent then, the government’s failures in human rights protections stem from its inability to make the military accountable for its abuses.

Q. Has HRW noted any progress on its concerns about rights respecting rule of law and the judiciary?
Human Rights Watch has long been a supporter of an independent judiciary in Pakistan and advocated for the restoration of the judiciary ousted by Musharraf in Pakistan and abroad. But we have also expressed our concern about the fear of judicial over-reach and unwarranted intrusion into the affairs of the legislature and the executive. HRW has noticed a tendency for the courts to find themselves embroiled in matters that they would not otherwise be an appropriate forum for, and we hope the courts will reflect on this perception. In a sense Memogate is a litmus test for all actors particularly the judiciary and the army. It remains to be seen whether the rule of law or the law of the jungle prevails in Pakistan.

-Raza Rumi

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