51st Session UNHRC: EFSAS Side-event, 'Terrorism and its effects on Human Rights in South Asia’
On the side-lines of the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) organised a very engaging and though-provoking Side-event on the subject of ‘Terrorism and its effects on Human Rights in South Asia’. A panel of scholars, policy analysts, researchers, journalists and Human rights activist in the field of terrorism and South Asian politics discussed the proliferation of terrorist organizations in the region of South Asia. The event was moderated by Mr. Junaid Qureshi, Director EFSAS, and was attended by a large number of participants, including human rights activists, NGO representatives, Diplomats and researchers. The speakers included Mr. Malaiz Daud, political analyst, formerly Chief of Staff of Afghanistan’s former President (Mr. Ashraf Ghani), Research Fellow at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and Research Fellow at EFSAS; Mr. Bashir Ahmad Gwakh, Author, Journalist at Radio Free Europe and an expert on Terrorism, Afghan Media, Taliban, TTP and ISKP, and Mr. Fazal Khan - Advocate, Human Rights Activist and member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).
Mr. Fazal Khan began his talk with a reference to his son, who was killed alongside 146 others during the Peshawar school attack in 2014. He noted that it is natural that such a devastating terrorist attack would have devastating effects on the families involved and that the attack, perpetrated by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had been facilitated by Pakistani security agencies. The evidence of this involvement, however, has been ignored until now. The families affected by the attack have sought justice within Pakistan’s judicial system, including through the filing of motions to the Pakistani High Court and the Supreme Court, leading to the Supreme Court ordering the formation of a commission investigating the attack. The commission’s report, published in 2020, accused the school of insufficiently protecting the school’s staff and students while covering up the role of Pakistani security agencies. The ties between terrorist groups and national security agencies have been further illustrated by the 2017 arrest of a leading TTP commander, who was allowed to live in a ‘safe house’ until 2020, defying orders of the High Court. Mr. Khan described this as another example of “adding injuries to our wounds”.
The families seeking justice, he outlined, have been accused of ‘anti-State’ activities, resulting in growing pressure from State and non-State actors. Mr. Khan survived an assassination attempt in 2020, with threats against his life persisting afterwards and him receiving little to no security support from relevant authorities. This prevailing threat forced him to flee Pakistan.
Mr. Khan stressed that the Pakistani military establishment has been creating, harboring, and sponsoring terrorist groups, which have targeted minorities throughout Pakistan and have received diplomatic and judicial support by State authorities. The security apparatus has further sought to equate Pashtuns with terrorists, despite terrorist proxies killing up to 60.000 Pashtuns, and security forces disappearing and extrajudicially killing Pashtuns. He called on the international community to stop the Pakistani Army and its proxies, further noting that the recent negotiations between State authorities and the TTP have been highly controversial in the tribal areas. Mr. Khan concluded his talk by suggesting that “the evil of terrorism cannot be controlled” unless the international community does not increase the pressure on the Pakistani military establishment. At a later point in the event, he added that Pakistan has no soft corner for human rights activists but offers protection to terrorist elements, which have committed gross human rights violations.
Mr. Malaiz Daud initially stressed that South Asian politics have become increasingly contentious in recent years, producing particularly perilous effects for minority populations in the region. The removal of Imran Khan from office in Pakistan and his subsequent political campaign, the growing influence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan's tribal areas, and the countermobilization of anti-TTP groups have all served to exacerbate the effects of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban's return to power, Daud said. He further outlined how the growing presence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan and Pakistan has challenged Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban. Mr. Daud additionally described the recent assassination of Al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri leader in Kabul as a major turning point in the relationship between the Western world and the Taliban.
The political fractures South Asia witnessed in recent years, Mr. Daud suggested, foster opportunities for a variety of social movements, including non-violent movements such as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Contemporary challenges for the Pakistani State and the Taliban regime include Imran Khan’s reelection campaign, violent and non-violent ethnic movements in Balochistan, the PTM, terrorist organizations targeting Pakistani State interests, female popular resistance in Afghanistan, and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (NRF). Ongoing and future crises could enhance the political sway of these groups, he argued. Mr. Daud referred to the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan as a case where a political crisis and a failed governmental response created political space for non-violent non-State actors, ultimately undermining the influence of the Musharraf regime. The current floods in Pakistan, he concluded, could present another such opportunity for political change.
Mr. Bashir Gwakh has extensively focused on the Pakistani tribal areas, specifically regarding questions of human rights and the presence of terrorist organizations. Mr. Gwakh argued that the human rights of ethnic minorities in Pakistan are violated by both the military, whose abuses have become more visible over time, and by terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has emboldened Pakistan-based groups, and has stoked the belief that other countries and regions could be ‘conquered’ in the way the Taliban has ‘conquered’ Afghanistan, Gwakh argued.
Pakistan, Mr. Gwakh averred, has failed to criminalize torture in violation of its agreements under international law. As a result, journalists and human rights activists have no legal safeguards. Consequently, Pakistan’s legal framework has enabled widespread human rights abuses, including the enforced disappearance of 45.000 Baloch. In the Pashtun tribal areas, Islamist terrorists have started to enforce Taliban-inspired social norms, with Taliban control in Afghanistan consolidating the TTP’s influence in tribal areas, he stated. This influence in Waziristan in particular may be strengthened further by the ongoing negotiations between State authorities and the TTP, he added. In conclusion, Mr. Gwakh was pessimistic in concern to the prospects for a sustained social change in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming years.
The event was followed by a vibrant and thought-provoking Q&A session, during which the audience and speakers discussed numerous issues, including the future of peace in South Asia, the rise of terrorism, the need to strengthen democracy and State effectiveness in South Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, and the role of Pakistan's ISI in perpetrating terrorism as a State policy in the region.