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The wages of insecurity

June 22, 2017

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THE government has done much to create a ring of insecurity around itself. Instead of dealing with the major causes of its inability to maintain a reasonable standard of governance, it is becoming increasingly intolerant not only of opposition and dissent but also of friendly advice that it treats as unwarranted criticism.

The latest victim of the government’s malevolence is the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). It is said that the government has decided or is preparing to place the commission under the Ministry of Human Rights. Since the government does not consider itself bound to explain its actions, no justification for depriving the NCHR of its autonomy has been advanced.

However, the fact that the bureaucracy has not learnt to bear with autonomous watchdogs is no secret. The commission may have annoyed some powerful sections of the administration by the reports of its fact-finding missions, such as the one on the man-made crises in Tharparkar or its attempts to probe cases of disappearance, especially in Balochistan.

A recent case of the administration’s unhappiness with the NCHR that did become public was its ‘audacity’ to present its report on torture in the country to the Committee against Torture at its meeting in March this year. If the commission was guilty of making a false statement in its report, or if it was accused of violating any protocol, these matters should be discussed in the open.

The most important reason for the embarrassment caused to Pakistan at Geneva was the poor and carelessly written initial report following the ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Punishment and the inability of the official delegates to take the queries and observations of the CAT in the spirit in which they were made.

Efforts to trifle with the independent status of the NCHR smack of mala fide intentions.

Besides, civil society has some idea as to how the hostility of the administration and some legislators has affected the commission’s work. There have been complaints, that for a considerably long time after its formation, the commission did not receive from the administration the support it needed and deserved. Maybe the promotion of human rights and protection of human rights defenders has become so difficult in Pakistan that no organisation can produce in a short period the kind of results the people want and expect.

Be that as it may, any attempt to interfere with the autonomy of the NCHR will be a gross violation of the Paris Principles, and the authorities should be aware of the fact that complete compliance with these principles is necessary for any national human rights institution to be accepted as a genuine coin at international councils.

Making the NCHR subordinate to any ministry, or any other institution, will cause Pakistan to lose all the goodwill it earned by creating it. Whatever the government’s complaints against the NCHR office-holders, the commission cannot be penalised for that. Dissatisfaction with the work of an auditor-general cannot justify any encroachment on the autonomy of his office. Likewise, dissatisfaction with a parliament’s performance would not justify its being put under the police department.

Efforts to trifle with the independent status of the NCHR smack of mala fide intentions and must not be allowed to continue.

Even more blatantly unjust is the government’s campaign against civil society organisations. While attempts to deny these organisations their right to freedom of expression and to curtail their activities through arbitrary changes in registration formalities and increase in administration’s powers to control their day-to-day functions continue, new methods of harassing them are being invented. These include the decision to impose taxes on associations working on a non-profit basis, fixation of an arbitrary limit on their establishment costs, a crackdown on social media and proposals to amend the telecom act.

All these attempts to strangulate civil society are rooted in the government’s inability to reconcile itself to the existence of a dynamic civil society and its right to defend the people against the state’s violation of the social contract on which it is based. No civil society organisation claims to be above the law, but it has every right to claim protection against a predatory executive’s whim and caprice.

The government has two main complaints against CSOs. Firstly, it does not like their protests against extra-legal killings, disappearances, violations of the rights of women, minorities and victims of state functionaries’ arrogance. Far from being actions against the state, these activities are aimed at making the state more efficient in serving the people and promoting a just dispensation. A state that does not tolerate civil society’s role as a defender of public rights and interests betrays its keenness to establish tyranny. Besides, it deprives itself of the benefit of friendly counsel rendered without charge.

The second government complaint against CSOs is that they defame the country by exposing flaws in governance at international forums. The authorities forget that the government gives CSOs the right to report on its performance by signing international treaties. Moreover, the world outside knows more about Pakistan than all the CSOs put together. The CSOs have no secrets that they can disclose to undesirable parties.

The existence of credible Pakistani organisations that can offer alternative reports should be welcomed by the state as they prevent the world from being influenced by falsehood spread by external foes. Thus the charge against the CSOs that they defame Pakistan is totally untenable. In fact, Pakistan’s image abroad is tarnished mostly by the government’s own acts of commission and omission.

The executive will be better able to banish the fears bred by its sense of insecurity by effectively dealing with rival centres of power, by seriously promoting social justice, by reverting to the road towards a welfare state and by respecting the rights of the opposition and welcoming dissent as a safety valve that will save it from blundering into disaster after disaster.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2017