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EFSAS Commentary

BBC’s Report on Human rights violations in Pakistan accentuates shortcomings of Reports by OHCHR


The detailed investigative report of M. Ilyas Khan on human rights violations in Pakistan that appeared on BBC News on 2 June is a brave attempt to expose what international institutions mandated with human rights, most notably the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), have shied away from doing. While the report specifically underlined the human rights abuses blatantly and excessively high-handedly perpetrated by the Pakistani State against the Pashtun ethnic group in western Pakistan, it was also a chilling reminder that the problem of human rights violations had reached pandemic proportions in the country. No ethnic group other than the dominant Punjabi has been spared by the Pakistani State, specifically its all pervasive military establishment. Whether it is the Baloch, who have been literally in the firing line of the military establishment, the Sindhis, who have fared little better, the Ahmadiya religious minority that has been targeted under draconian blasphemy laws, or the subjugated residents of Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, their plight has been the same albeit with varying degrees of intensity. Unlawful detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings of critics of the government and innocent civilians alike have become the norm rather than the exception in Pakistan.

In his report titled ‘Uncovering Pakistan's secret human rights abuses’, which was based on research and first-hand interviews with hapless victims in various parts of Pakistan, especially the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, M. Ilyas Khan found that “Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Pakistan's long battle with militants as part of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. Evidence of murder and torture by soldiers and insurgents is emerging only now”. Khan traced the atrocities committed by the Pakistani military establishment against the Pashtuns to the flight of the Taliban and other militants from Afghanistan to Pakistan following the entry of the United States (US) into Afghanistan in October 2001. Khan wrote that Pakistan “allowed the Taliban to carve out sanctuaries in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas, notably the districts of North and South Waziristan. But the Afghan Taliban did not cross the border alone. Militants from a complex array of different groups poured into the tribal region and some were far more hostile to the Pakistani state. Jihadists with global ambitions also began plotting attacks from Waziristan, prompting demands from Washington that Pakistan do more to crush Islamist militancy”. Khan quoted Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst and author of the book ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy’, as saying that as the violence spread, Pakistan was caught “between an inclination to fight militant forces and yet having to partner with some to strengthen its future bargaining position”.

Local human rights activists estimate that over 8,000 people picked up by the Army since 2002 remain unaccounted for. Khan cited some specific examples of the nature and scale of atrocities that Pashtuns were forced to endure at the hands of the Pakistani Army. He wrote, “Local rights activists say scores of civilians have been killed in successive air campaigns and ground operations by the military. They have been collecting video and documentary evidence to back up their claims. In May 2016, for example, an attack on a military post in the Teti Madakhel area of North Waziristan triggered a manhunt by troops who rounded up the entire population of a village. An eyewitness who watched the operation from a wheat field nearby and whose brother was among those detained told the BBC that the soldiers beat everyone with batons and threw mud in children's mouths when they cried. A pregnant woman was one of two people who died during torture, her son said in video testimony. At least one man remains missing”.

Similarly, “One evening in April 2015 militants fired at a military post in Shaktoi, South Waziristan. Satarjan says troops responded by capturing suspects from a nearby village and shooting two of them dead. Early the next morning, on 21 April, they extended their search across the valley to Satarjan's village where they found weapons stashed on a hill behind his house. ‘The only people present in the house at that time were my brother Idarjan, his wife and two daughters-in-law,’ Satarjan says. The soldiers knocked at the door. His brother answered and was immediately overpowered, tied up and blindfolded. The troops asked where other male members of the family were and rounded up Idarjan's four sons from elsewhere in the valley. Witnesses later told Satarjan that the boys had been beaten, and his eldest nephew, Rezwarjan, received a lethal blow to the head. All of them were thrown in the back of a pick-up truck which the soldiers had commandeered, and driven away to the army camp in the area. The driver of the truck later told Satarjan that Rezwarjan was ‘already half dead and couldn't hold himself in a sitting position, so the soldiers decided not to take him to the camp.’ He told Satarjan: ‘They asked me to stop the truck, shot Rezwarjan in the head and threw his body on the road.’ Rezwarjan's body was found on 23 April”.

The scale of the violations against the Pashtuns, with an estimated 50,000 killings since 2001, forced a section of the ethnic group to form, as brought out in EFSAS Commentary of 13-04-2018, a new rights campaign called the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM) last year. In its short existence, the PTM has succeeded in rattling the might of the Pakistani military establishment by fearlessly publicizing human rights abuses in the tribal regions of north-west Pakistan, home to a majority of the Pashtuns in the country. Khan added that “while the aforementioned individual stories are shocking but they are not unique. The PTM alleges that hundreds of people from the tribal areas could tell similar stories. But they remain officially unacknowledged. They are the consequences of a war Pakistan has gone to great lengths to hide from the world. This conflict on the Afghan border has for years been an information black hole”. Khan quoted Manzoor Pashteen, the top leader of the PTM, as saying, “It has taken us almost 15 years of suffering and humiliation to gather courage to speak up, and to spread awareness about how the military trampled our constitutional rights through both direct action and a policy of support for the militants”.

Threatened by the PTM’s exposure of the devious role that the military establishment has played against the Pashtuns, the establishment responded in the manner that it knows best. It declared outright war against the organization, with Major General Asif Ghafoor, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), thundering on 29 April that “Their time is up”. This was followed up on 26 May by the Army opening fire on a large group of PTM protesters in North Waziristan, killing 13 of them. Two PTM Members of Parliament were arrested. Several PTM activists who were documenting cases of abuse and running the group's social media campaign were also jailed. The Pakistani media was browbeaten by the establishment to completely blackout any news relating to the PTM, and violators have faced physical threats and financial pressure. As Khan put it, “The treatment of the activists who are finally, after years of silence, raising the alarm on the abuses of a long and secret war suggests that those who have suffered in the conflict face an uphill battle for justice”.

Ilyas Khan had conscientiously sought comments from Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as the ISPR on the findings of his investigation. While Imran Khan chose not to respond, the ISPR termed the findings “highly judgmental”. Obviously, the ISPR would have responded in a similar vein if asked to respond to the Human Rights Watch’s observation of 20 August 2018 that “Pakistani security forces often are responsible for serious human rights violations including torture, enforced disappearances, detention without charge, and extrajudicial killings, according to Pakistan human rights defenders and defense lawyers. Counterterrorism laws also continue to be misused as an instrument of political coercion. Authorities do not allow independent monitoring of trials in military courts and many defendants are denied the right to a fair trial”.

That the PTM, which represents the Pashtuns, a major ethnic group in Pakistan, is being treated with such disdain and unbridled hostility by the establishment raises the uncomfortable question of the plight that the people of Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, with their small numbers and ambiguous status, are forced to endure. It is, therefore, as surprising and unpalatable today as it was a year ago when EFSAS published its Commentary of 22-06-2018 that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in its report on human rights in Jammu & Kashmir hid behind what it described as “Restrictions on the freedoms of expression, opinion, peaceful assembly and association in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan”, that had “limited the ability of observers, including OHCHR, to assess the human rights situation there”. It is iniquitous that, be it because of the personal biases and predilections of the then head of the UNHRC or out of sheer faineance, the OHCHR nevertheless chose to come out with a half-baked and highly flawed report.

The irony of the situation is that the BBC team that researched M. Ilyas Khan’s report obviously had to take considerable risks while doing so. They nevertheless had the courage and conviction to actually carry out the required investigations to produce an unbiased, and therefore meaningful, report. On the other hand, political parties and NGOs based in Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, taking great personal risks while doing so, actually visit the UNHRC at each of its sessions to reveal their accounts of torture and humiliation, atrocities and killings, which the OHCHR did not even deem important or relevant enough to include in its first ever report on Jammu & Kashmir. Had it done so, it would certainly have been able to better “assess the human rights situation there”. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the report came across as partial, biased, and in reality, quite unwarranted.

Human rights violations in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir have taken place over the years, and these cannot be condoned. However, in the Indian context, there is terrorism sponsored and exported by Pakistan that it has to contend with. Violent attempts at disrupting peace and stability have forced the Indian government to respond in defense of its own interests. That the OHCHR found, and through a letter to the Indian government on 18 March indicated that it continues to find, the violations that occurred in the midst of this artificially and externally induced warlike situation, which befell India unprovoked, to be of greater interest than those invoked callously, ruthlessly and unjustifiably by the Pakistani military establishment upon residents of Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, betrays an inexplicable absence of equity and magnanimity.

The BBC News report is a pointer to the OHCHR on how human rights violations in Pakistan, whether they occur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or in Balochistan, or in Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, need to be recorded and reported. The challenges presented by the military State in Pakistan in terms of restricting access and intimidation must necessarily be overcome if the OHCHR actually wishes to fulfill what it is mandated to do – dispassionately protect and promote human rights.