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Can we too leave our terrible past behind us?

April 07, 2012


Wherever a society wishes to address secretive human rights violations carried out by its institutions, there are two countervailing principles: justice and truth. If a society is to pursue justice, it will find the culprits of the wrong-doing and subject them to some sort of punishment as retribution for the victim or their families. On the other hand, the pursuit of truth becomes a passive conquest, where the society gives immunity to those willing to reveal the secrets of the past. While many countries have pursued justice, we look most favorably at nations that chose to pursue the truth, like South Africa. If the Pakistani state or society wishes to address the military’s pattern of human rights violations in Balochistan and their abuse of democratically elected officials, a truth and reconciliation process should be considered.

Pakistan's Judiciary has inched closer and closer to confronting the military on its secretive and illegal operations conducted throughout the nation’s history. In the missing persons case, the Supreme Court asked the Court office and attorney general to create a list of all the individuals allegedly picked up or murdered by the police or Army. This was a bold step, especially as the Court order went on to claim “it is alarming that despite repeated warnings and observations by this court that law and constitutional guarantees are being flouted flagrantly…the complaints of citizens regarding cases of missing persons have not yet abated, rather increased tremendously.”

While this is a substantial step by the Court, many allege that these judicial proceedings are “for show,” as the Court has never possessed the capability required to imprison an agent for the deep state or a sitting Army general for their official conduct. These individuals would go onto argue that any attempt to legally check the military is destined to fail, as the “law of the jungle” still pervades in Pakistan.

Though the supremacy of the military to carry on international and domestic rights violations has traditionally been left unchallenged, it seems that the Army is experiencing pressure from all sides unlike never before. The Court is attempting to check the military on its pattern of enforced disappearances and political sabotage for the first time. At the same time Parliament is holding hearings to determine foreign policy which used to be the exclusive right of the Army. Further, due to international incidents and the failure in Afghanistan, the US has sharpened its rhetoric against the deep state and seems to have revoked its blank check policy with Pakistan’s khaki stewards.

Such a chorus of dissent echoes as a conspiracy in the ears of some right-wing analysts who claim that the Army continues to be the least corrupt and most efficient institution in the nation, putting every civilian regime to shame. Further, they would likely balk at the idea of imprisoning General Kayani for his brutal tactics in Balochistan, saying this would only play into the hands of Pakistan’s enemies. Under this theory, once the military is forced to follow the rule of law like all other citizens and is subject to imprisonment for its brutalities, the foundation of the country will be destroyed – leaving it open to international attacks.

Fear-mongering aside, there is another reason why one should consider granting limited immunity to military generals who have carried out these illegal abuses for decades. The Truth and Reconciliation process is based on granting immunity for wrongdoers, in exchange for stopping the brutal abuses and honestly admitting to their guilt and involvement. Such testimony can rip off the cloak of secrecy concealing these matters and provide information to the victims and their loved ones. While this would not serve our need for retributive justice, especially for the hundreds of youth that have been disappeared and mutilated by the military, it will serve a different purpose.

This idea may sound like poison for those who are advocating against authoritarianism or human rights violations, which are rampant across Pakistan. However, one should consider the far more dangerous and unjust situation South African’s experienced during Apartheid. From 1960 until 1993, non-whites in South Africa were considered second class citizens, without equal legal rights. These individuals were brutalised by police and military agencies who subjected them to rape, murder, illegal detention; they also faced daily discrimination from their white counterparts. However, when the Apartheid government fell, individuals like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela advocated for the path of truth and harmony, rather than retributive justice.

Desmond Tutu asked, “Who could have imagined that South Africa would be an example of anything but the most awful ghastliness?” However, despite the indelible stain left on the society by apartheid, Archbishop Tutu explains “Instead of revenge and retribution, this new nation chose to tread the difficult path of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.” This meant that police officers, army officials, and politicians who helped maintain the Apartheid regime came into open court and revealed the secrets of the past.

As these practices were kept secret by the state, the families of victims could not find recorded information on the fate of their relative or spouse. The only individuals who knew the truth were the perpetrators of the abuses, who would speak only if they knew they were immune from punishment.  For some, this was too costly of a bargain as they wished to have retributive justice and punish the people who committed the atrocities. For others, the process of hearing these stories was more cathartic and relieving than seeing the culprit in jail. In one case entitled the Craddock Four, police tortured four innocent individuals and burned them alive in their cars for no apparent reason. When the teenage daughter of one of the victims was asked if she could forgive the culprits, she replied “We would like to forgive, but we would just like to know who to forgive.”

When the report was released, President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for several decades by the Apartheid regime, announced “The wounds of the period of repression and resistance are too deep to have been healed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission alone, however well it has encouraged us along that path. Consequently, the report that today becomes the property of our nation should be a call to all of us to celebrate and to strengthen what we have done as a nation as we leave our terrible past behind us forever.”

Whether the military has intimidated or impressed those attempting to hold them responsible for their illegal acts, the fact remains that there have been very few instances of military officers being imprisoned by a civil court. However, the political manipulation and murder of innocent civilians continues unabated leaving more families clueless as to the fate of their loved ones. If a commission were established that made immunity contingent on full and honest disclosures from military leaders and the complete prohibition on the practices, thousands of families could be provided a resolution and some truth.

While the calls for secession in Balochistan may have reached a point of no return, the words of Desmond Tutu should inspire self-evaluation the Pakistani state needs, “‘[South Africans] had a nightmare called apartheid. It has ended. Your nightmare, too, will end. They used to have what people regarded as an intractable problem. They are now resolving it. Nowhere in the world can people ever again claim that their problems are intractable.’ There is hope for all of us.”

The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.