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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan Army and Pakistani politicians -present and previous- bear equal responsibility for the present state of affairs


Pakistan’s fourth periodic report on the human rights situation in the country is scheduled to be taken up at the 53rd Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that will be held from 19 June to 14 July 2023. Pakistan has received as many as 340 recommendations from UN member States on its fourth periodic report on human rights, and this represents a substantial increase from the previous Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Geneva-based UNHRC that was conducted in 2017, when Pakistan had received 289 recommendations. While the Pakistan government is expected to examine these recommendations and report back to the UNHRC in its forthcoming meeting, the harsh reality confronting the country is that even as it is mulling over the recommendations, egregious violations of human rights have been taking place across the nation as the military establishment, after being vilified and demeaned by the controversial former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, is seeking to reassert its muscular predominance over the State aggressively and forcefully.

Describing the present situation in Pakistan, Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, United Kingdom (UK) and the UN, wrote in ‘Pakistan’s moment of peril’ in Dawn on 22 May that “The raging political crisis has dragged all state institutions into the eye of a perfect storm. Polarisation has reached an unprecedented level, with any middle ground in politics eliminated as a consequence. Even a semblance of national unity lies shattered… Endless political turmoil has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss. The authority of state institutions is being eroded in a no-holds-barred political battle. All state institutions have come under assault. The ruling coalition defied the Supreme Court order on holding Punjab elections and made the chief justice the target of virulent attack to force him to step down. The government has also declared it won’t accept any verdict by the apex court, accusing it of being partisan. In its confrontation with the SC, it has wrapped itself in the principle of parliamentary supremacy, throwing the very notion of separation of powers out of the window".

Lodhi added, “For its part, the PTI leadership has questioned the military’s role with Khan hurling one allegation after another at the army leadership, including the accusation that it seeks to disqualify and eliminate him from politics. The ongoing political crisis has also entailed unseemly clashes between institutions - the executive and parliament with the higher judiciary, the government with the presidency and the Election Commission with the Supreme Court. In each instance one institution has accused the other of overstepping its constitutional authority… By undermining public trust in institutions, political actors ignore its deleterious consequences. The authority of these institutions rests principally on their legitimacy. When this is undermined, whether intended or unintended, the state’s authority is eroded. And when brinkmanship rather than restraint is on display the entire edifice of governance is exposed to the risk of paralysis and breakdown. This has important implications for economic governance, which is the core task of the state. The economy cannot be effectively managed in an environment where there is erosion of institutional authority and nonstop political turmoil”.

Pakistani analyst Zahid Hussain, on the other hand, commented that “The events of recent weeks have changed the country’s political landscape. It has brought the stand-off between the PTI and the security establishment to a head. It is an ironic reversal of the period when Khan was in power. Some three years ago, speaking at a dinner for the then ruling coalition lawmakers, he had arrogantly boasted ‘we are the only choice’ for the establishment. But the game has changed as he finds himself pitted against the same institution. The May 9 incident seems to have closed all doors to reconciliation. Notwithstanding the heightened anti-establishment sentiments in the heartland whipped up by Khan’s narrative, the May 9 violence has changed the situation. A massive media campaign launched by the PDM government highlighting the destruction perpetrated by its supporters has also put the PTI on the back foot. It has allowed the security agencies to launch a vicious clampdown on PTI supporters not witnessed in recent times. There have also been reports of brutal violations of human rights. Even those senior members who haven’t left the party are being compelled to denounce the violence”.

Meanwhile, at the release of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) 33-page fact-finding report on rights violations in Balochistan titled ‘Balochistan’s Struggle for Hope’ on 20 April,  the vice-chairman of the HRCP, Habib Tahir, charged the Pakistan deep State of using enforced disappearances on a large scale to suppress dissent. The HRCP report, which ought to be taken into consideration by the UNHRC while examining Pakistan’s human rights record, pointed out that it remains concerned about enforced disappearances, curbs on press freedom, and growing frustration on economic exclusion and allegations of political manipulation. The HRCP report said it found that Pakistan was using enforced disappearances to muzzle dissent in the region, elaborating that boys who were yet to reach their teens were being arrested and held by Pakistan’s law enforcement officials. Students also lamented to the fact-finding team that they are unable to develop political consciousness because the universities in the region banned political events and discussion in the university campus. The students are compelled to sign an affidavit promising not to take part in such activities. Meanwhile, representatives of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons in Quetta, Mama Qadeer and Nasrullah Baloch, who for the past decade have protested and campaigned against forced disappearances, said 500 Baloch persons were forcibly disappeared in 2022 alone, while 40–50 dead bodies were recovered. Qadeer said the deaths were results of extrajudicial killings.

Paank, the human rights organization of the Baloch National Movement, said that in 2022 the Pakistan Army forcibly disappeared 629 people, extra-judicially killed 195, and tortured 187. Baloch families have been demanding to know the whereabouts of their loved ones and seeking their return for many years, but the Pakistani government has come across as powerless in the matter. Even Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif felt constrained to let this be known when he responded to a query on enforced disappearance by saying “I will talk to the powerful circles about the enforced disappearances”. Paank argued that this made it clear that the so-called democratic governments of Pakistan even today do not have any real power, which is wielded by the Pakistani Army.

Serious problems with freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, sexual and gender-based violence and climate justice have all plagued Pakistan for long, and blatant human rights violations have become endemic in the country over the past several years. The targeting of human rights advocates, political activists, and journalists has been done using extrajudicial abductions, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture as weapons of State policy. In addition to enforced disappearances, the promotion of terrorism by the Pakistani military and the weakening of civilian control of the military have become major problems. A former legal adviser of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has observed that expansion of the State’s security apparatus has contributed to an atmosphere of impunity in the country. Also, religious fundamentalist groups have regularly been browbeating the Pakistani government into acceding to their extreme demands.  It is, therefore, important that the UNHRC, in the outcome report on Pakistan’s UPR that is to be adopted at its 53rd session, appropriately enumerates and underlines the damage that the flawed and self-serving approach of the Pakistani military establishment is inflicting upon the suffering people of the country, and demands unerring adherence to human rights across the country.

Pakistan’s 4th national report under the UPR was presented to the UNHRC by Hina Rabbani Khar, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in January. In its submissions to the UPR, Pakistan made little mention of its work on the issue of enforced disappearances, claiming instead that it was in the process of promulgating domestic legislation to criminalize such acts, and that it had constituted a Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. This Commission, according to Pakistan, was “expeditiously and efficiently” dealing with instances of missing persons, and has been able to dispose of a majority of the cases. The view from the ground, however, tells a markedly different story. According to a series of appellate court proceedings, the issue of enforced disappearances continues to persist despite the Commission being constituted over a decade ago.

Pakistan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which grants persons the right to liberty and security of person, and protects them from arbitrary arrest or detention. Enforced disappearances operate to remove the victim from the protection of the law — whether international or domestic — rendering them exceedingly vulnerable to further oppression such as custodial and forced confessions, which are significant issues in the Pakistani context. At the UNHRC in January, the interest in Pakistan’s dismal rights record and the desire to see that improve was evident from the 122 delegations that made statements, and a sizeable number of the delegates underlined the rampant problem of enforced disappearances. Several countries demanded that Pakistan ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and incorporate it into domestic law. Enforced disappearances, therefore, ought to be find appropriate space and emphasis in the UNHRC’s outcome report.

A very pertinent question put to Pakistan by the United States (US) was on how the government planned to strengthen civilian control of the military. This aspect holds as much importance as any other if the human rights situation of the Pakistani people is to improve. The question has become all the more relevant over the past few days as the military, using all its might, has gone about brazenly intimidating leaders of the PTI and, after multiple arrests and detentions, has scared them enough to en masse leave a party that they till just a few days ago swore fully by. Several thousand PTI supporters have also been detained in the clampdown that has been launched against the party.

Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has said that the government was considering banning the PTI, till recently a key player in the tenuous political and democratic space in Pakistan. Banning the PTI tells its support base that there is no space for them in the Pakistani political system. Imran Khan, who said in a recent statement that his party’s leaders and workers were “facing the full force of State terror”, is actually paying the cost of taking on those who were once his powerful patrons. In what has emerged as a recurring pattern over Pakistan’s history, politicians of all hues have very often been happy to sacrifice their propounded principles, and democracy, at the altar of political expediency. Therefore, Pakistani politicians, the present government and Imran Khan included, bear equal responsibility for the present state of affairs, as they have all relied on the Army when they needed it, and pandered to its wishes when it suited them. Strengthening civilian control over the military may, therefore, be difficult for such a group of politicians, and it is the people of Pakistan, sadly, who will yet again end up as the hapless victims.

The UNHRC needs to take the remarkable and rapid deterioration in the human rights situation in Pakistan in the period since the country presented its 4th national report under the UPR to the UNHRC in January 2023 into serious consideration and draw the right conclusions in its Universal Periodic Review.