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Gathering clouds threaten democracy

By Online

October 16 2015



The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed alarm over growing threats to democracy and human rights amid a combination of neglect of human rights and a ‘civil-military imbalance’.

A statement issued at the conclusion of the autumn meeting of the Commission’s Executive Council said: “The HRCP Executive Council notes with grave concern the many challenges that endanger democracy and fundamental rights in the country.

Civil-military imbalance: A greater say and prominence for military and the security apparatus in all spheres, many of which are clearly beyond its mandate —with civilian ownership and input lacking or quickly receding—represents serious peril to democracy and representative governance in Pakistan. Instead of ceding space over counter-terrorism or any other pretext, the political leadership and parliament must urgently take ownership of issues and focus on the quality of governance, transparency and responding to the needs of the people they represent. There also appears to be a clear plan to project the role of the military leadership in state affairs to the exclusion of civilian role.

Growing intolerance of dissent: The perceptible increase in general intolerance of dissent is unmitigated bad news. Today it might be about gagging one or two individuals but what is to prevent arbitrary orders from serving as a precedent for others? And then there are the challenges for the media and journalists which make them even more vulnerable than they had previously been. This impact is visible not merely in violence or threats of violence against journalists, lawyers and other professionals, but also in self-censorship or a ‘cautious’ or selective approach.

Growing threats to civil society organisations: Civil society organisations in Pakistan have never really had a particularly easy time, but they now face a campaign to malign and demonise them. While the civil society welcomes all efforts aimed at transparency, they are facing increasing hurdles and interference in their work. Those who would previously sit in judgement on such interference and concerns have looked the other way. In fact, the security and intelligence officers visiting civil society organisations’ offices say that the ‘investigation’ is rooted in a Supreme Court directive regarding NGOs. Human rights defenders who already work in a very dangerous environment are at greater risk because of the demonisation. This context and a failure to protect rights defenders from extremist and militant elements has greatly enhanced their vulnerability. Moreover, by hounding civil society activists, the state is depriving itself of access to diversity of opinion on important issues.

Cyber crime bill: The civil society and IT experts have numerous and significant concerns over the contents of the draft cyber crime law. The state seems impervious to reasonable proposals for reforms and has ignored the fact that this intransigence will have serious repercussions on fundamental freedoms. These proposals must be considered and the law improved with safeguards. There is no reason why such a specific law should not cover and criminalise unauthorised spying by the authorities.

Dilly-dallying on local government: It is now abundantly clear that all provinces, unfortunately, are reluctant or have misgivings regarding the local government system; some manifest that by perpetually finding excuses to delay local bodies elections and others through their reluctance or refusal to allow the local governments to function in any meaningful way. The provincial governments must understand that besides being a constitutional requirement, functioning local governments are the continuation of the very devolution the former had pined for and got under the 18th Amendment. Governance at the local level heeding people’s immediate needs can only boost the credentials of democracy and revive the electorate’s faith in representative government.

Karachi beyond Rangers operation: There is no doubt that the overall law and order situation in Karachi is better today than it was in September 2013 when the Rangers operation was launched. It is also true, however, that the number of killings in encounters and complaints of rights violations at the hands of the security apparatus have escalated over that period. Allegations of enforced disappearance, custodial killing, torture and the operation not being even-handed demand close scrutiny. There is substance to the complaint that an independent mechanism to evaluate the Rangers actions is lacking. Civilian input and oversight of the operation appears to be non-existent. Questions remain over the sustainability of any gains made, particularly with respect to the capacity of the police to take over once the operation concludes.

Balochistan: The promised push for a political settlement of the crisis in Balochistan remains elusive as mixed messages emerge from the province. The people of Balochistan must have a stake in negotiations and must not be deprived of the level of democracy present in other provinces. The kidnappings for ransom might have decreased in Quetta but many of the other law and order issues remain rife in and outside the provincial capital. Disappearances are still reported, security forces operations are going on in places like Awaran. It is high time to urgently pursue meaningful political steps to improve the lives of citizens in this long-suffering part of Pakistan.

Minorities: Religious minorities in Pakistan remain the most vulnerable of the citizens. Well known concerns of religious minority communities regarding faith-based violence, discrimination and unequal protection of the law are still unaddressed. The need to confront hate speech has found some small mention in the official narrative, but impunity for the perpetrators still remains the norm. The use of the blasphemy law to settle scores or punish citizens and the intimidation of lawyers and judges have made independent judicial determination of such cases impossible.

Children: The accounts of child abuse and exploitation in Kasur are enough to put any civilised society to shame for abandoning its children. Neither sexual exploitation of our children, nor preparation and sale of videos of their abuse are peculiar to Kasur, or any one region in the country. The sordid affair has exposed the utter lack of protection for the nation’s children. There are many lessons to learn and civil society needs to actively monitor that things do not return to business as usual.

Disappearances: Enforced disappearance incidents are being reported from almost all parts of the country, but the attention this critical rights violation demanded from the authorities, the judiciary and even the media has largely dissipated. The recommendations made by the UN working group on enforced disappearance in 2012 have not been implemented and do not seem to be a priority for the authorities. If there is a will to improve things, the recommendations made by the working group must be implemented at the earliest.

Lack of transparency in military operations: The need to take on militants of all hues across the country has long been argued and has found greater acceptance even among those in denial after the army public school attack in Peshawar last year. Certain aspects of the military operations, however, merit a closer look. The operations under way in the north-western parts of the country lack transparency and difficulties for the media and civil society in accessing information makes things even more problematic. The civilian say and oversight of the operations appear to be conspicuous by their absence. That needs to change without delay. The plight of the Pakistanis displaced as a result of the operations seems to have fallen off the priority list. Not only must their woes be addressed but policies devised should learn from experience to prevent displacement.”

Originally published by HRCP

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