What about HR abuses?

May 18, 2011


THIS paper reported last Saturday that during the in camera briefing to legislators, the DG ISI offered to resign if parliament so wished. He should simply have submitted his resignation when he reportedly admitted that an intelligence failure had taken place. Prima facie, this was inefficiency at its worst.

But what about wilful human rights violations allegedly carried out by intelligence agencies in Balochistan? The high number of enforced disappearances and the discovery of bodies of political activists — brutally murdered and with marks of torture — raise many questions. Some of them have been asked by the Supreme Court as well but remain unanswered. Shouldn’t someone be held accountable for that? Or do these violations mean little as they affect the Baloch who have been treated with contempt anyway?

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which has worked since 1987 to create public awareness about human rights, has recently published its 10th report titled The State of Human Rights in 2010. It testifies to the utter failure of the state to protect the rights of its citizens. These have been guaranteed by the constitution — the 18th Amendment adopted last year has added a few more rights to the existing list — while a number of international conventions ratified by the government lately have further enhanced the number of rights that governments must protect.

This report must be made compulsory reading for all state functionaries including the armed forces. It is regrettable that notwithstanding all the rights listed on paper Pakistan is a country whose citizens are the most devoid of basic rights that are the hallmark of civilised societies. The people of Pakistan have learnt to lead a dehumanised existence irrespective of who rules them — be it a military dictator or a civilian government. Even a cursory look at the HRCP’s report gives one a fairly good idea of the wide range of human rights abuses in the country.

The HRCP report points out that political participation is weak in Pakistan. I believe that is one reason why human rights are trampled over so easily. The fact is that thriving and effectively functioning democratic structures are the surest safeguard against human rights violations. But, as the report documents comprehensively, our democracy suffers from far too many weaknesses.

First of all, members of parliament have failed to perform effectively their role of lawmakers and watchdogs of public interest. What more can one expect of them when barely 45 per cent of them attend the proceedings of the National Assembly? According to one account, 87 members had not uttered a word by way of participation in the first three years of the Assembly’s term.

There is no denying that an authoritarian regime that exercises arbitrary power without any checks and balances will inevitably misuse its powers and not show any respect for the rights of citizens. But when democracies also fail to operate within the framework of the law and the constitution, how can this aberration be explained?

The fact is that the trappings of democracy do not make a government truly democratic in spirit and style. Having been denied an uninterrupted experience of democratic rule and major leaders of each and every political party without exception having supped at the table of military dictators, it is not surprising that military rulers find ready acceptance. Steeped in an autocratic political culture that our leaders imbibed from their military patrons, they are not capable of showing any respect for the rule of law or human rights. Even their foreign-educated offspring relapse into their autocratic mindset on their return.

The other guarantors of human rights could be the people themselves. But not ours. Used to living for long in a state of disempowerment and ‘ineducation’, the people have still to develop a nuanced understanding of their rights and emerge from their state of helplessness to assert themselves and demand what they are entitled to. The absence of a political culture based on the rule of law has not created the enabling environment for the implementation of human rights.

The fact is that respect for human rights calls for a state of mind and a way of life imbibed by the people over a long period of time in a democratic dispensation. With the military pulling the strings for 64 years — be it from behind the scenes or after planting itself in the front — democracy has never had the chance to strike roots. In that case, how can you expect the people to be the defenders of their rights?

Worse still, having being denied education, the people have reconciled themselves to their oppression. Thomas Jefferson, the American president, observed, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” Education is known to have a direct correlation to democracy. Prof Edward Glaeser from Harvard University attributes this to the skills and motivation provided by education to a dispersed population to work collaboratively to “defeat dictatorial coups and executive aggrandisement”.

Tasneem Siddiqi, who presided over the afternoon session of a recent conference on ‘history and the people’, put it succinctly. In Pakistan, the problems of the people are not identified and analysed. There is therefore a disconnect between the masses and the intellectuals, who do not practice activism and advocacy. How will human rights be protected?