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The path of isolation

February 13, 2012

OUR state machinery revved into quick action last week to denounce the hearings on Balochistan conducted by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The Foreign Office conveyed its concerns to the US government. Senators frothed at the mouth, describing the hearing as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty (what, again?) and lambasting Washington for meddling in the country’s internal affairs. If the government could muster such a unanimous political response to the rampant and brutal human rights violations in Balochistan, the US Senate would probably not feel the need to ask prickly questions. But that, it seems, is not the point.

The hearings, and Pakistan’s official response, are the latest glimpse into a future where the international community increasingly isolates Pakistan — if it chooses to proceed down that path.

Given that the US and Pakistan are working hard to mend bilateral relations, the timing of the hearings was awkward. They occurred in the same week that President Barack Obama met with his national security team to review ties with Islamabad and the US media reported that Gen James Mattis, head of US Central Command, would visit Pakistan and possibly convey an official apology for the Salala incident. Indeed, the US State Department has tried to distance itself from the Senate hearings, dismissing them as routine and irrelevant to Washington’s policy position.

But it is difficult to overlook the hearings in light of Washington’s convenient use of the human rights angle in diplomatic relations. The fact is, the US tends to acknowledge human rights violations when it serves its interests to do so; when seeking alliance and cooperation, it is willing to overlook the worst transgressions.

Chinese human rights violations were a taboo topic during Obama’s visit to Beijing in the autumn of 2009, when his administration was pursuing a policy of ‘strategic reassurance’ with China. Similarly, during his November 2010 visit to India, Obama was careful not to stir the hornet’s nest of human rights violations that is Kashmir.

In a bid to increase its influence in China’s backyard, the US chose not to attach conditions to Myanmar’s human rights review during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit there last November. And closer to home, in October 2010, the US largely overlooked allegations of extrajudicial killings against the Pakistan Army, cutting off some aid to implicated military units even while approving a $2bn military assistance package.

In other words, the US does not raise concerns about human rights as a casual aside. By holding the Balochistan hearings, Washington signalled to Islamabad that the ball, which has been in Pakistan’s court since the Nov 26 Nato attack, could easily return to US, and that bilateral relations will not be hunky-dory, even after the resumption of Nato supplies.

Leaving aside the political bickering, Pakistanis should now contemplate the vicious cycle that is born of such an incident, one of the major fallouts of increasing isolationism in a globalised world. In a strange twist, external criticisms (such as the Balochistan hearings) can have a more debilitating impact on internal dynamics than brash policies to isolate rogue states.

Consider, for instance, the recipe served up by Stephen Krasner in Foreign Affairs on “how to end Islamabad’s defiance” and isolate Pakistan: end US aid, escalate drone strikes, improve ties with India, impose economic sanctions and carry out occasional cross-border raids to target major terrorists. Interestingly, the US has already tried all these tactics with Pakistan at one time or another. None have led Pakistan to course correction or to review its foreign or security policies, nor have they led to the termination of US-Pakistan bilateral relations. But the threat of such actions being repeated in the future has made the domestic political landscape more fragile, polarised and tense than before.

The more a state feels that is being persecuted or strong-armed, the more stubborn it becomes (take present-day Syria as a case in point). State representatives begin to spend more time railing against external detractors and playing politics than addressing the substance of the criticism. Indeed, internal issues that make it to the international spotlight become toxic in a domestic context: in a country that is increasingly isolationist, the champions of a particular cause (for example, the just treatment of the Baloch) become perversely interchangeable with international ‘oppressors’ or ‘meddlers’. Their credibility and patriotism comes under question, and public debate begins to focus on their motivations rather than on the problem at hand.

Pakistan has seen several cycles like this in recent years. Most obviously, rather than interrogate how or why Osama bin Laden had sought refuge in Pakistan, the state and its cronies slammed the US for finding him here. Now, rather than acknowledge and address the human rights crisis in Balochistan, our government is howling at Washington for daring to broach the topic. This is the logic of a country headed down the path of isolation.

It need not be this way. A country like Pakistan, which boasts ties across the international ideological spectrum, could leverage external criticisms to balance the policy agenda against domestic political constraints that hamper the right course of action. It could also seek international support, funding and expertise to manage tougher issues. Finally, it could use a proactive response in one context to request international reciprocity in another (we’ll clean up our act in Balochistan if you review rights violations in Kashmir, for instance).

But if Pakistan continues to opt for counterproductive responses to international efforts at isolation, it can anticipate a violent situation: the worst human rights abuses, state oppression, censorship and violence will proliferate while internal dissent will become akin to betrayal or treason. Dodging this vicious cycle is yet another reason for Pakistan to opt for engagement over isolationism.

The writer is a freelance journalist.