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Sealing borders

Updated March 14, 2017

The closure of the Afghan border comes at a time when relations between the two states are deteriorating, with Islamabad accusing Kabul of not doing enough to curb extremists the former claims operate out of Afghan territory. Indeed, a Pakistani government official — speaking on the condition of anonymity — said that the border would remain sealed until Kabul acted against a list of 76 “most-wanted terrorists”.

The closure has resulted in losses in the tens of millions of dollars in trade, and a diversion of east-bound exports to Iran in the medium to long term. More significant than the monetary costs, however, has been the human cost, with the ongoing Afghan refugee crisis exacerbated by the border sealing. A cardinal norm in international law is that of non-discrimination, reflected in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights as well as the 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination — both of which have been signed by Pakistan. Thus, blocking the entry of virtually all Afghans irrespective of their threat level would be in disregard of international law.

The border closures are the latest steps taken by Pakistan in the interests of ensuring ‘greater security’; Pakistan has, for decades now, been a front-line state in the war against extremism, and the fact that it takes certain precautions is not only appropriate but laudable. But a democratic state must always balance most carefully its needs for security with its need for liberty, lest it slip too far down the road to a police state; indeed, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: ‘those who give up liberty for security, deserve neither’.

This sort of unilateral behaviour, labelling a group of people as the root cause of one’s troubles and lashing out against them, is not novel; indeed, the world has seen these unilateral restrictions on movement imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli state, where Palestinians are often barred from going to their places of work as retaliation for extremist activity in which they played no part. This kind of unilateralism is also on lurid display in the US. In his first week in office, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, lowering the number of refugees to be admitted into country in 2017 to 50,000, suspending the US Refugee Admissions Programme for four months, indefinitely suspending the entry of Syrian refugees, and indefinitely suspending the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries.


A democratic state must always balance most carefully its needs for security with its need for liberty.


While the world — including Pakistan — decried this unilateralism and celebrated when it was struck down by the US federal courts, it would be prudent to take stock of one’s own moral capital. The border closures are a mirror of America’s ‘Muslim ban’; arguably, the majority of Afghans affected by the closures hold valid visas or otherwise possess the legal right to enter Pakistan. Moreover, those who can’t afford to travel by air are the ones disproportionately affected by Pakistan’s ‘Afghan ban’.

Executive Order 13769 was struck down by the US judiciary and the subsequent ‘Muslim ban’ might very well also be held to be unconstitutional. In Pakistan, however, the trichotomy of power is not as strong and developed; in light thereof it is unlikely that the judiciary would act to keep the executive in check in acting in such a disproportionate, reactive and retributive manner — ostensibly in the name of ‘national security’.

The balancing act conducted here is between human and national security, and if the state should choose to make compromises on human security in this regard this calculus should be assessed and acted upon by the people through democratic forums and processes. Judicial oversight is one way to achieve this, but it requires transparency and accountability and the sharing of information with civil society and institutions like the judiciary so that they can prepare and execute a constitutional response in alignment with Pakistan’s international and domestic human rights law commitments.

Such compromises of one’s human security should not, however, be made by the executive or the security establishment impromptu on the pretext of dealing with terrorism in such a reactive and ad hoc manner. This form of decision-making is opaque, firstly making it impossible for those indulging in this risky calculus to be held accountable to the people for any potential abuses of power. Secondly, and more sinisterly, such opacity in the decision-making process could potentially obfuscate the real causes underlying threats to national security. Pakistan, unfortunately, has no shortage of domestic extremist actors and casting responsibility off and putting it on the “76 most wanted Afghans” raises the danger of possibly ignoring threats closer to home.

Domestic terrorism is now, unfortunately, deep rooted and a function of structural problems and socioeconomic disparity caused by a weak state relying on decades of bad policy. Individuals who carry our terrorist acts are indeed criminals, but they are — at the same time — pawns and agents of a machine that thrives on the socioeconomic disenfranchisement of the people at the hands of political elites.

There is a whole institutional network of terrorist organisations thriving in Pakistan and the use of lethal force against them might very well be justified. But socioeconomic and political reform aimed at achieving distributive justice would, in the long run, yield far more permanent results. The border closures as a tactic of reprisal or coercion would impact the lives of ordinary Pakistanis and Afghans, leading to greater human suffering, and only serve to radicalise hitherto peaceful elements of society.

Pakistan must realise that while there might indeed be foreign elements playing a hand in domestic terrorism in Pakistan, terrorism within the country is locally sustained. The role of external sources in domestic acts of extremism is by and large limited and can often be negated if one addresses the needs of the marginalised elements. It is a simple matter to cast blame for internal harm on foreign elements, but before Pakistan casts a stone at Afghanistan it is prudent to note that Afghanistan also shares a border with Iran — a country which has experienced relatively little extremist activity.

Sikander Shah is former legal adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and law faculty at Lums.

Abid Rizvi is an expert on international law.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2017