After a CIA- and MI6-orchestrated campaign of mass killing and ‘purges’ in Indonesia in the 1960s that left an estimated upward of one million Indonesians dead, the attention of the US turned to ‘fighting communism’ in South America.
In Chile, a bloody coup was engineered that ousted the popular and democratically elected, left-leaning government of president Salvador Allende on Sept 11, 1973, by Gen Augusto Pinochet. What followed was a dark chapter in Chile’s history, filled with brutal repression, enforced disappearances, illegal detentions and torture, and mass killings by the military regime and its secret police.
This period was characterised by the unleashing of state terrorism, the suppression of fundamental rights, and the complete evaporation of the rule of law and accountability of the army and security services. Over 40,000 Chileans are officially recognised as having been subjected to human rights abuses by the military and intelligence agencies over this period, including an estimated 3,200 subjected to extrajudicial killing.
Argentina’s dark period with regard to human rights abuses and political repression began with the military coup of 1976, the umpteenth time in the country’s history, that deposed president Isabel Perón and brought a junta into power. Led by army chief Gen Jorge Rafael Videla, the junta began an unprecedentedly violent campaign against political opponents and leftists, that it itself branded as “the dirty war”. Thousands of Argentinians were summarily picked up by security agencies, brutally tortured, killed and thrown into unmarked mass graves, ‘disappeared’ forever, or murdered by right-wing death squads.
Human rights abuses and debt-induced economic instability could be the new norm.
As the US’s ‘covert’ war against the spread of socialism and communism in the western hemisphere, dubbed Operation Condor, metastasized through South America, the same pattern of human rights abuses and killings on industrial scale by military regimes or proxies propped up by the US and actively supported by American military advisers and CIA operatives was replicated in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Honduras.
All told, an estimated several hundred thousand people across Central and South America died during this period in the “dirty wars” conducted by imposed military juntas.
Another feature of this period in Latin America’s history was that the military coups almost invariably provided beachheads for US corporations and the ‘Chicago Boys’ — technocrats inspired by, and working under, Milton Friedman and promoting the idea of an unfettered free market. Along with US involvement, poor economic management and protracted reliance on foreign loans, leading to unsustainable debt burdens, was another feature of Latin America that may resonate with Pakistanis.
Fast forward in time. In 2013, in yet another military coup against a popular and elected government taking place with the full backing of the US, president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood party, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, was ousted by the army chief, Gen Abdul Fatah al-Sisi. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other pro-democracy activists were gunned down or imprisoned without trial. The human rights abuses unleashed by the Sisi military dictatorship have been described as the worst since the Mubarak years.
One of the most egregious abuses occurred in August 2013, when the army and security forces attacked a peaceful protest by Morsi supporters, killing an estimated 1,000 unarmed demonstrators. Human Rights Watch described it as “one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”. Hundreds of alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were also sentenced to death in a single mass trial.
In 2019, Mr Morsi died in detention in what UN experts ruled could amount to a “state sanctioned arbitrary killing”. There has been a deafening silence from the self-anointed global champions of human rights since the illegal coup and subsequent abuses of Gen Sisi’s dictatorship.
Since the regime change in April 2022, the Pakistani establishment seems to be dangerously tilting towards adopting the ‘politicide’ undertaken by Sisi’s Egypt (and previously by a host of anti-democratic regimes in Latin America and other places). While human rights abuses have a long history in Pakistan, they have generally taken place in the context of armed conflict against the state. Journalists have been killed, beaten and intimidated in the past, including some high-profile ones, but the assassination in Kenya of the country’s most prominent investigative journalist Arshad Sharif is a new and sorry low. Others have received death threats and been forced into exile. Adoption of inhuman torture tactics, including alleged sexual abuse, against political opponents is also an ominous new chapter.
As an aside, while the US involvement in Latin American military coups and subsequent human rights abuses had a clear strategic rationale, as well as commercial objectives (such as for the Iraq war), the motives for regime change in Egypt or Pakistan may be immediately less obvious. In Egypt’s case, keeping a client state within its sphere of influence is an obvious candidate — while keeping ‘Islamist’ influences at bay, no matter how democratic and peaceful. (France’s reaction to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) win in Algeria in 1992 and its involvement in sparking another “dirty war” in its former colony is another case in point).
In Pakistan’s case, US motivation in promoting regime change appear two-fold. Reinstating the discredited and crooked old guard ensures continuation of a pliant political system in which the military and corrupt domestic ruling elite operate hand in hand in furthering US interests. The other is to contain China’s influence after the launch of CPEC and cut off its potential access to Gwadar. Limiting China’s access to Afghanistan’s mineral riches also appears to be a strategic goal.
Regime change. Abductions. Wrongful confinement. Torture. Assassination. Attempted assassination. Enforced disappearance. False cases. Exile. Silencing of critics. Repositioning as a US client state. We appear to be ticking all the boxes.
While human rights abuses in Pakistan are not new, they have taken a dangerous turn in their scale as well as brazenness in the post-regime change scenario. Whether Pakistan is going to ‘walk like an Egyptian’ or slide like Latin America, either way it is a dangerous and ominous development that can only be the precursor to several very difficult years ahead.
The writer was a member of the economic advisory council under the former prime minister.
Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2023
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