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Pakistani civilians: Caught in the crossfire

Updated January 14, 2011

Although the state has tried to address the grievances of affected civilians, a concrete policy response has not materialised in this regard. — Photo by AP

With a war ongoing in neighbouring Afghanistan for over nine years, the conflict within Pakistan has also escalated. Since 2007, the country has seen a sharp rise in suicide attacks, bomb blasts, targeted killings and other forms of militancy drawing on sectarian, religious and ethnic conflicts. And while civilians in most of these cases have suffered immensely, their situation still needs much understanding and concern on the state’s part.

Treated as soft targets by militant groups, civilians have often been attacked to achieve a particular symbolic impact. Moreover, Pakistani military operations inside the northwest and US drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) have also led to countless civilian casualties. While the exact number of civilian casualties is difficult to determine due to restricted access and security issues in certain areas, findings issued by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic) estimate that in 2010 alone “9,365 civilians were killed or injured” in attacks by militants, security forces operations, inter-tribal conflicts and cross-border attacks throughout Pakistan. Another estimate issued by the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (I-Saps) indicates that from January 2010 to August 2010, approximately 6,620 civilians died or sustained injuries in bomb blasts, suicide attacks and other militant violence.

Similarly, the ongoing conflict in the northwest has led to millions getting displaced and losing their properties and livelihoods. And although the state has tried to address the grievances of affected civilians and has offered compensation in many instances, a concrete policy response has not materialised. A consultation recently organised by I-Saps in collaboration with the Foundation Open Society Institute (Fosi) discussed the issue and emphasised the need for the federal and provincial governments to develop a policy framework to address what is in effect a crisis situation.

The absence of a policy in this regard is the principal reason why, apart from the exception of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, there are no dedicated budget lines for the purpose at the provincial levels. This also prolongs the process of compensation, which principally becomes a matter of government notifications and in most cases eventually requires the signature of the respective province’s chief minister. The process can however be sped up to a certain extent by introducing policies that can streamline and automate the practice.

A policy framework, by standardising compensation, would also facilitate the federal and provincial governments in dealing with groups insisting on preferential treatment. This would ensure equal treatment of and compensation for all civilian victims of conflicts and terrorism.

One instance of uneven treatment mentioned during the consultation by I-Saps’ Executive Director Salman Humayun was that of shopkeepers affected by Peshawar’s Meena bazaar blast in October 2009 and those affected by the arson at Karachi’s Bolton Market in December 2009. While the latter were assisted by the Sindh government, the Meena bazaar shopkeepers had not been compensated in any manner, Humayun said, adding, that a policy will certainly remove such inconsistencies and snags that can be a likely feature in case of ad hoc responses.

A comprehensive policy should ensure relief and compensation to all civilians affected by militant attacks, Pakistani military operations and drone strikes carried out by the United States. Civic’s findings indicate that while civilian victims of militant attacks have been compensated on several occasions, no concrete compensation programs exist for civilians who have incurred losses in military operations and civilians who have been harmed in drone attacks also remain neglected. In case of drone strikes, along with clarification by the US over what grounds it thinks it has for launching attacks on specific targets, the Pakistani government must also explain to the public the degree of its own role in these operations. Furthermore, both US and Pakistani governments should ensure that civilians affected by these operations are not abandoned to an uncertain status.

A policy should further determine adequate as well as timely compensation for all civilian victims and, as a participant pointed out at the consultation, it should also be gender sensitive to ensure that female victims of conflict are justly compensated for the losses that they incur.

There are various models that the provincial governments can use and adjust around depending on their respective circumstances. For example, the compensation systems applied by the provincial police departments and those used to provide relief to personnel of other Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) in the event of death, injury, incapacitation and other harm can be used as a starting point.

A policy, once devised, can be most effective only when the public is made aware of it. To achieve that end, assistance from the local media will be crucial. The media can apprise members of the public to the policy as well as the procedural details, should they need the information at any point.

Given how civilians continue to suffer across Pakistan due to various conflicts, a concrete policy to address their plight is all-too-necessary at this point. The situation demands that along with devising legislation and procedure to thwart attacks and hold the perpetrators accountable, the government must come up with an adequate course of action that focuses on offering support and compensation to affected civilians.

Qurat ul ain Siddiqui is the Desk Editor at Dawn.com and can be contacted at quratulain.siddiqui@gmail.com