After the apology

With the unqualified apology tendered to the nation by Dr A. Q. Khan on Wednesday, the high drama surrounding Pakistan's nuclear programme seems to have moved toward a denouement. Even though this by no means is the end of the story, the apology by the living legend and its acceptance by the federal cabinet on Thursday should, nevertheless, serve to lessen the intensity of the trauma to which this country has been subjected for several months.

The people now at least know where things stand with regard to the allegations appearing in the foreign press about Pakistan being a source of nuclear proliferation. In what indeed was an act of courage and a demonstration of large-heartedness, the man honoured as the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, took full responsibility for his actions, though he said he had acted in good faith. Nevertheless, he sought the nation's pardon "to atone for some of the anguish and pain" the people of Pakistan had suffered.

The public apology over television was significant from three points of view. First, Dr Khan accepted full responsibility for what he admitted were "unauthorized proliferation activities." These activities, he said, were in violation of Pakistani laws and had "placed in serious jeopardy" his own "life-time achievement" in giving the country "foolproof national security.

" Two, he made it clear that others involved in unauthorized proliferation activities had acted on his instructions. Three, he declared in categorical terms to the nation that there was "never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by a government official." For this he sought the people's pardon in view of his services to the nation.

While the government has accepted Dr Khan's apology, the critical issue is how the world would view it. Obviously, to the international community, Dr Khan's carefully worded statement has not only bailed out other Pakistani scientists accused of proliferation activities; it has also exonerated the government of Pakistan of blame for irresponsible conduct.

For the past many months, the Bush administration has shown a sympathetic understanding of the present Pakistan government's position on the proliferation issue about which America feels so strongly. On Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said that the government of Pakistan was not involved in proliferation and that President Musharraf "is the right man at the right time in the leadership of Pakistan."

The State Department also expressed similar views and noted that Islamabad had been cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, the issue is one of Pakistan's long-term interests and how seriously the world would take Islamabad's commitments to non-proliferation for the future. In other words, will Pakistan's non-proliferation vows be deemed credible by world opinion after all that has happened? The issue is no more Dr Khan and other scientists but the very image of Pakistan as a responsible nation that can be trusted with a finger on the nuclear trigger.

Proliferation of nuclear technology enhances the already existing grave dangers to humanity's survival and cannot be tolerated on moral or political grounds. The international community has so far accepted Pakistan's possession of the nuclear bomb as a weapon of deterrence very grudgingly. Any suspicion that Pakistan remains a possible source of the spread of nuclear technology will render the country vulnerable to severe international pressure to roll back its nuclear programme.

The problem of a credible assurance to the world is compounded by the lack of democratic traditions in Pakistan. Nevertheless, most political parties have shown a commendable sense of foresight and restraint on the nuclear issue. This can be further developed to secure a national consensus on a constitutional provision against proliferation.

Led by the government party, a move could be made to secure an all-party agreement of opinion in the National Assembly for a cast-iron constitutional guarantee against proliferation. The aim should be to insert in the Constitution a clause that would make the spread of nuclear technology a crime, entailing severe penalties for the violator. Given the concerns and anxiety which all sections of the people have expressed on the goings-on at Kahuta, it should not be too difficult for our parliamentarians to achieve such a consensus.

State of human rights

Human Rights Watch executive director Brad Adams had a number of critical remarks to make on the state of human rights in Pakistan during his recent visit to the country. Addressing a press conference in Islamabad, the international rights watchdog official blamed the military's "excessive role" in civilian affairs as a reason for the decline in the "rule of law in Pakistan."

He criticized routine violations of law by the military regime and its intelligence agencies, saying that arbitrary arrests, detentions and disregard for due process had increased since the 1999 military take-over. While acknowledging the professional credentials of Pakistani judges and lawyers, he said that they were having to work under tremendous pressure brought to bear on them by the government.

The removal of six judges who refused to take a fresh oath under the Provisional Constitution Order was a case in point, which sent "a strong message for others to follow the official line." The rights group official was equally critical of the government's victimization of "errant" journalists, saying the state in recent months had held some journalists and political opponents on questionable charges of sedition and ordered secret agency personnel to assault others.

The government would be hard put to deny or challenge the charges levelled by the rights watchdog as its findings are based on facts. The irony of the matter is that in the instances cited here the state and its functionaries acted clearly in violation of the law. Pakistan's human rights record has never been enviable, but the recent findings cast even a darker shadow over the government's record.

A state that does not respect its own laws and is often found acting in breach of them can hardly be expected to enforce the rule of law as a binding force for all, irrespective of all other considerations.

These are serious allegations that require some soul-searching on the part of the authorities. The opposition should raise the issue in parliament and seek the government's commitment that it would adhere to due process and rule of law rather than act in an arbitrary manner and in disregard of citizens' rights.

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