Prime Minister Imran Khan started his political party as a movement for justice and rule of law in the country. His moment has arrived and the nation has high expectations from him and his team.
In the first round of key administration appointments, he has nominated senior lawyers, Farogh Naseem and Anwar Mansoor Khan, as law minister and attorney general respectively.
They have both held senior positions in the past and hopefully will be prepared to manage the challenging legal issues confronting Pakistan.
However, to bring forth real change, important steps will need to be taken regarding how the government handles legal matters on the domestic as well as international legal fronts.
On the oft-ignored international front, Prime Minister Khan’s government will need to deal with dozens of international legal issues of the sort that not many countries in the world have faced before.
Unless urgent steps are taken and a new strategy adopted, Pakistan may soon need to pay billions of dollars under international arbitration claims related to rental power projects, independent power producers, mining concessions, failure to supply gas to industrial units and alleged breach of high value contracts.
The economists are raising alarms because of the budgetary deficits and looming loan repayments. However, no one seems to understand or care about how any of these significant international legal awards will be paid by the new government. A loan may be rescheduled but the same is unlikely in relation to an international arbitration award.
In addition to these arbitrations, Pakistan needs to take a multi-disciplinary approach towards anti-money laundering and for curbing terrorist financing to be removed from the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list.
This would require changes to existing laws and stricter enforcement of existing laws and improved coordination between state institutions such as the State Bank, Federal Investigation Agency, National Accountability Bureau and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.
Moreover, Pakistan’s water woes are partly linked to the fate of the Indus Water Treaty and no significant headway has been made in recent years in relation to the dispute regarding India’s construction of the Kishanganga project.
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Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue is largely dependent on international treaties and UN Security Council resolutions and again the matter has not been pursued with any commitment in recent times. The case of the Indian spy, Kulbhushan Jadhav, is also ongoing before the International Court of Justice.
Furthermore, despite the efforts of initiatives such as Justice Project Pakistan and Courting the Law and recent media attention, no significant action has been taken regarding the repatriation of more than 10,000 Pakistanis languishing in prisons abroad.
In many cases, these individuals are being held without proper trial and they often lack the resources to engage lawyers to represent them. Pakistan needs to work on prisoner exchange treaties at least with countries that are hosts to significant numbers of overseas Pakistanis.
Prime Minister Khan’s focus on our more than eight million overseas Pakistanis should change this situation as well as lead to legal reforms to encourage affluent members of the diaspora to invest in the country leading to an increase in foreign exchange inflows.
The new setup is also likely to focus on tracing and repatriating wealth made through illegal means and stashed abroad.
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Any serious attempt to achieve this task will require negotiation of mutual legal assistance treaties with key countries and developing a legal strategy to seek timely convictions of corrupt elements in Pakistan and then obtaining orders in foreign courts to freeze their assets.
The august offices that the new appointees will take over have limited capacity to manage the above mentioned legal matters.
As of last month, the attorney general’s office had 142 additional attorneys-general, deputy attorneys-general and assistant attorneys-general on its roaster across Pakistan.
It is alarming to note that hardly any of these federal law officers have experience of working in international law firms and on international legal issues of the sort that we face as a country.
The previous administration established an International Disputes Unit at the attorney general’s office, but it remains understaffed and under-resourced. The law ministry’s situation is also no different.
The provinces have dozens of law officers led by an advocate general and they too lack capacity to deal with matters of an international nature.
Apart from dispute management, we also need to consider who, if anyone at all, is responsible for preempting such disputes and what can be done to avoid expensive international legal disputes in the future.
On the domestic front, the federal and provincial governments continue to engage private lawyers and pay them millions in legal fees for matters that should be handled by the law officers on the government’s payroll.
This is largely because successive administrations have appointed politically connected lawyers to these posts to reward for political loyalties and then engaged similarly politically connected private lawyers on a case by case basis.
There are very few law officers who can be considered as career law officers and who are well-regarded by the bench and bar in their respective regions.
Moreover, the case load is not evenly distributed between these law officers, resulting in some overworked and many underutilised law officers and thus resulting in inefficient case management.
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This trend must stop. Only the best and brightest should be appointed as law officers and external lawyers should be used in only very exceptional cases.
We also have a lot of expectations from the successful implementation of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. However, there is a need to urgently work on creating a framework for dispute resolution of CPEC-related projects.
Disputes between Chinese contractors/suppliers and Pakistani institutions and private sector should be handled in an efficient and effective manner so that the rights of all parties are adequately protected and to ensure continuity and timely execution of the projects.
Access to legal information and laws is the first step towards access to justice. A few years ago, the law ministry had launched an online portal containing most, if not all, of the laws in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the website eventual went offline because of unknown reasons.
It needs to be launched again and efforts should be made to make available official Urdu translations of key legislations as well.
The next few months will be important for the new government and, in many respects, the way the above mentioned international legal matters are handled and the basis on which new law officers appointed will signal the direction Prime Minister Khan’s Pakistan will take.
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