Disservice to democracy

Published January 7, 2015
The image shows the National Assembly building in in Islamabad. — INP/File
The image shows the National Assembly building in in Islamabad. — INP/File

SOME objected but then either abstained or voted in favour anyway; others tried to defend the law; fewer still tried to justify their vote — the sombre mood in parliament yesterday, and on Monday too, suggests that politicians were at least aware of the great disservice to the democratic project they had gathered to inflict.

But inflict they did and, now, with the passage of the 21st Amendment in parliament, the country must live with the spectre of anti-terrorism military courts for the next two years — assuming the civilian leadership has it within itself to deny an extension if sought two years hence.

Also read: Raza Rabbani in tears: 'Ashamed to vote against conscience'

While several parliamentarians, especially from the government side, did try and claim ownership of the idea of expanding the military court regime to try civilians accused of terrorism and militancy, few who understand the structure of power in this country would have been convinced.

Consider when the idea was first mooted: after a meeting of the national political and military leadership. Within days, perhaps even hours, of that meeting what was agreed to in the presence of the military leadership was quickly reopened for debate by sections of the political class.

Then, after the army chief publicly insisted on the need for courts via the ISPR — including while the last All Parties Conference on the matter was in session — the politicians again endorsed anti-terrorism military courts unanimously.

Between that last meeting and the vote in parliament however further doubts were expressed by various parties, or at least the leaders of several parties. In the end, though, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and PPP boss Asif Ali Zardari deciding to back the courts, the numbers in parliament were always in favour of the easy passage of the 21st Amendment.

Perhaps, though, it would be wrong to suggest that the politicians were completely coerced into accepting anti-terrorism military courts. As has been evident in the national debate over military courts, the focus shifted from the failures of the civilians to the need to do something against Taliban-type militant groups.

Indeed, in supporting the courts, politicians may even have found themselves on the right side of popular opinion, thereby deflecting much of the anger over Peshawar away from themselves.

Finally, as has been evident during the proceedings on Monday and Tuesday, the political leadership is still not willing to take complete ownership of the fight against militancy.

There was, for example, no meaningful call for urgent reform of the criminal justice system, the civilian-led state prosecution service and the police investigation process. Without those reforms, two years from now it seems highly unlikely the civilian side of the state will be in any shape to deal with anti-terrorism prosecutions.

If there is one thing that has been reinforced during this sad episode it is this: the civil-military imbalance will worsen unless the civilians learn to deliver.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2015

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