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Saving Pakistan

“It is bewildering that a bullet in the back of the head is considered an effective counter-terrorism strategy.”

Published in: The Friday Times

Ali Dayan Hasan, Senior South Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch, spoke to Friday Times reporter Raza Rumi about the importance of respecting human rights while taking on the Taliban in Pakistan.

Is it possible to fulfill human rights' obligations when faced by an enemy that does not respect any legal standards?

Under International law, the Taliban and the Pakistan Army are two parties to a conflict and upon both there is an expectation to adhere to human rights and humanitarian law. The Taliban's failure to do so is no excuse for the army to feel it is not bound by the law. In case this is mistaken for a "get Pakistan" argument, let me clarify that the precise same principle allows us to critique US conduct in Iraq or Afghanistan. You can't apply conflicting standards just because you are in sympathy with one or the other party.

Aerial drone strikes by the US in FATA have escalated this year with over 90 being reported as of the end of October. What is your position on these strikes?

The international laws of war including those that cover "internal armed conflict" are not unrealistic. They factor in attacks on legitimate military targets and allow for proportionate civilian casualties where unavoidable. There is an argument that aerial drone strikes in fact minimize civilian casualties through very specific targeting. However, there are persistent claims of large-scale civilian casualties but lack of access prevents independent verification. Such verification is quite possible. Instead of taking journalists on stage-managed aerial tours in FATA, the Pakistan Army could take independent monitors on aerial tours of specific sites where drone attacks have taken place. This would help somewhat in sifting fact from propaganda. Of course, that would require the Pakistan Army, which is party to these strikes and provides the ground intelligence that allows for them, to admit as much. I should also emphasize that, so long as it continues to play along with the myth that the Pakistani military and civilian authorities are not party to the attacks, the onus is on the US to prove that it is not causing disproportionate civilian casualties.

Is Pakistan's counter-terrorism strategy acceptable from a human rights perspective?

The active phase of operation Rah-Rast was conducted relatively well. And since the military regained control of Swat, Taliban-perpetrated abuses such as public floggings and hangings have mostly ended there and this is welcome. However, Human Rights Watch continues to receive credible reports of military and police abuses in the valley, including summary executions, arbitrary detention, forced evictions, and house demolitions. To date, no perpetrators have been held accountable for the hundreds of killings documented by us and others. Several thousand Taliban suspects rounded up since 2009 in Swat and FATA remain in illegal military detention. The army has repeatedly refused to allow lawyers, relatives, independent monitors, and humanitarian agencies access to them.

This is horrendous counter-terrorism policy. You cannot hope to establish the writ of the state or trust in it through abusive force. What is preventing the army from actually helping establish the rule of law by bringing detainees into the legal system and providing effective security to courts in Swat? There can be no more powerful symbol of the state than truly functional courts in Swat where Taliban ingress was a function of a legal vacuum in the first place. It is bewildering that a bullet in the back of the head is considered an effective counter-terrorism strategy. There are equally worrying but unverified reports from FATA.

Even the US, no friend of the Taliban, finds the strategy unacceptable. More importantly, the Leahy Law requires the US State Department to certify that no military unit receiving US aid is involved in gross human rights abuses and requires a thorough investigation when such abuses occur. In October, six units of the Pakistan Army operating in Swat were sanctioned under this law even as the US announced a US$2 billion military aid package for Pakistan. Unless the army rapidly holds accountable those within its ranks responsible for summary executions, it risks jeopardizing further aid. US law and internal political pressure will leave the Obama administration little choice.

What is your assessment of the Pakistani judiciary's efforts in this area?

Perhaps distracted by an ongoing confrontation with the government, the judiciary has not even sought an explanation from the army or its intelligence agencies about these abuses. If the aim of the judiciary is to establish the rule of law, it needs to hold the most abusive arms of the state accountable not turn a selective blind eye.

Are the Pakistani media and civil society playing their due role?

HRCP has done well in raising the issue of abuses in counter-terrorism operations. Otherwise response from civil society groups has remained muted. In my view that is a mistake. While the media has been a vocal, even hysterical, critic of the elected government, it has rarely reported on human rights abuses by the military while journalists known to be critical of the military continue to be threatened, and mistreated by intelligence agencies.

There is, of course, a nationalist discourse, as shrill as it is bogus, centered on US-bashing and lionizing dubious characters such as Afia Siddiqui. The US and Pakistani role in the strange tale of Ms. Siddiqui is murky but she herself has suspiciously failed to provide a credible account and evidently her family's narrative is full of untruths. Siddiqui's media deification is mind-boggling in the face of a country-wide security and human rights crisis.

The media needs to shed its ambiguity about the Taliban and other Al-Qaeda proxies and to acknowledge that they represent a real threat to the basic rights of citizens and to the state itself. It needs to engage in an honest debate on the necessity to combat and overcome these actors in a rights-respecting manner. This requires holding both the Taliban and the army accountable for their abuses which stand verified and documented. Sadly, this is not happening.

Ali Dayan Hasan is senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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