WASHINGTON: Pakistani institutions need to work through the electoral process in consultation with the political parties to ensure fair and free elections, said Elizabeth Horst, the lead US diplomat for South and Central Asian affairs.

“We feel very strongly that Pak­istan’s future leadership is for the Pakistani people to decide, that the Pakistani people deserve their day at the polls. Pakistani institutions need to work through that process in consultation with the political parties,” she said.

“We want to see the (electoral) process advance in a way that facilitates broad participation, with respect for freedom of expression, assembly, and association,” responding to a set of questions from Dawn, Ms Horst said.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the electoral process is being overseen and administered by Pakistani institutions. Our interest is in the democratic process,” said Ms Horst when asked if the US would support the demand for holding elections now.

Elizabeth Horst suggests consultation with parties to ensure free, fair polls

“We want to see elections that are free and fair and conducted in accordance with Pakistan’s laws and constitution,” she added.

About measures to stop rights violations, she said: “Respect for human rights features prominently in US assistance to Pakistan, not only in our development assistance programs, but also in our security and law enforcement cooperation.”

“Our senior officials routinely raise human rights issues with Pakistani counterparts. That includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Acting Deputy Secretary Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary Lu, and US Ambassador Donald Blome,” Ms Horst said while explaining US interests in upholding human rights.

Ambassador Blome, she said, has raised this issue in his meetings and discussions with caretaker government officials, including Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar.

The US, she said, “has and will continue to raise … our concerns about restrictions on free speech and a free press, including threats and harassment of journalists and their families” with Pakistani authorities.

US officials, she said, also continue to discuss issues like “censorship of criticism of the military and armed forces, restrictions on freedom of movement, defamation and blasphemy laws, and use of local law and regulation to silence independent media by suspending licenses” with their Pakistani counterparts.

“As I mentioned before, we have and will continue to raise these concerns with the government of Pakistan. Free, independent media is a key pillar of every democratic society,” she added.

The other issues that are discussed regularly in bilateral meetings with Pakistani officials include “freedom … for peaceful assembly and association, especially in the lead-up to national elections,” she added.

Responding to the perception that the US brought down Imran Khan and wants to keep him out of power, the US official said, “Pakistan’s future leadership is for the people of Pakistan to decide. The electoral process is led and decided by Pakistan’s institutions, in close consultation with the political parties. Our interest is in the democratic process: to see free, fair, and inclusive elections, conducted in accordance with Pakistan’s laws and constitution in an environment of safety and security that allows broad participation.”

The US, she said, was surprised to see Pakistani media continue to report false narratives, that were plainly untrue. “We don’t support any one candidate or party over any other, and we will work to further strengthen the US-Pakistan partnership with whomever the people of Pakistan choose,” she asserted.

About the arrest of Pakistani Americans in Pakistan for participating in political activities, she said: “Promoting the safety of US citizens abroad is at the core of everything we do as diplomats, and this, of course, applies to Pakistan. When a US citizen is detained abroad, US consular officers seek to provide all appropriate assistance, including by working to ensure that detained US citizens “are treated fairly and in accordance with the local law and relevant international law”.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2023

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