Ali Dayan Hasan
HRW's annual report for 2011 has given a scathing account of the state of human rights? How would you compare it to the 2010 and 2009 reports?

 2011 was a particularly bad year even by Pakistan's standards and saw a spike in abuses and expanding impunity for abusers. Persecution and discrimination under cover of law against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups reached a zenith and freedom of belief and expression came under severe threat. The government utterly failed to provide protection to people threatened by extremists or hold the extremists accountable. Some 800 politically-motivated killings took place in Karachi. Balochistan suffered at the hands of intelligence agencies and the FC as targeted killings of Baloch nationalists became routine and disappearances continued. Militants retaliated in the province by murdering non-Baloch. Taliban and Al Qaeda terror attacks continued. Sindh saw massive flooding for the second year running displacing some 700,000 people. And we saw a push-back from the military, which effectively wrested control of foreign and national security policy from elected institutions creating real fears of a derailing of the constitutional process altogether.

However, last year also saw a marginal decline in suicide bombings by the Taliban. Parliament, which has had an excellent legislative record throughout its tenure, enacted some exceptional laws to protect women. But it is equally true that these gains were overshadowed by the traumatic events and setbacks outlined above. The fact is that towards the end of the year, it even appeared that attempts to undermine the democratic transition altogether were close to success.

 Are you suggesting that the elected government is not "in power"?

I think that would be an overstatement. And this is a work in progress. In a transitional democracy, it is essential that constitutional rule and due process of law be protected above all as human rights protections flow from that. And in that limited but critical area, the government has had some success, other failures notwithstanding. But it would be accurate to say that the military has yet to fully come to terms with the fact that its historical strategy of transferring power without authority to civilians is no longer tenable.

However, just because the constitutional and political system survived the setbacks of 2011 should not be confused with the reality that it was in very grave danger. The sorry fact is that the government's control over the military and intelligence agencies is largely notional. In Balochistan and KP, where the greatest abuses are taking place, civilian authorities exercise virtually no control over security policy. So the answer actually is more democracy not less, more accountability for the military and intelligence agencies not less.

The recent report released by the judicial commission to investigate the murder of Saleem Shahzad has also been criticised by HRW. Some view HRW's verdict as a bit too harsh given that the commission faced the intractable problem of receiving insufficient evidence?

It is not clear that the commission even sought to look for evidence. The commissions' findings are counter-intuitive at best. Saleem Shahzad had made it clear to HRW that should he be killed, the ISI should be considered the principal suspect. He had not indicated he was afraid of being killed by militant groups or anybody else as suggested by the commission. At great personal risk, witnesses presented themselves before the commission to offer accounts of ISI and military involvement in human rights abuses. The commission repaid this courage by muddying the waters and suggesting that just about anyone could have killed Shahzad. The commission even found it appropriate to recommend that the "press be made more law-abiding and accountable through the strengthening of institutions mandated by law to deal with legitimate grievances against it." It is perverse to use an investigation into the killing of a journalist as a way of limiting press freedom. The commission shied away in confronting the ISI over Shahzad's death and its failure to get to the bottom of Saleem Shahzad's killing illustrates the ability of the ISI to remain beyond the reach of Pakistan's criminal justice system.

Are you saying that Pakistan's courts are not exercising their authority effectively to enforce fundamental rights? They have recently given very strict orders to produce the missing persons before them?

We are encouraged by and welcome the Supreme Court's belated efforts to trace missing persons and hold the agencies generally and the ISI specifically to account for numerous serious allegations of torture, abuse, disappearances and killings against it. But sustainability is key to success. And the fact is that to date, three years after the restitution of the independent judiciary, no ISI or military personnel have been held accountable for multiple allegations of heinous abuse against them. The day the courts actually hold military and intelligence personnel accountable, it will send a powerful message that impunity for abuses will no longer be tolerated. HRW and all human rights defenders look forward to that day.

Some quarters have criticised HRW's stance towards Pakistani courts calling it excessive and perhaps unwarranted? Do international organisations have the mandate to question national courts?

Rights-respecting rule of law is impossible in the absence of an independent judiciary. HRW advocated and lobbied, internationally and in Pakistan, for this, and welcomed the restoration of independent judges. Now that judicial independence has been achieved, it is our view that judicial conduct has to be scrutinized thoroughly, and the judiciary has to be held to the highest standard. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry knows and acknowledges the role HRW and other international groups have played in the struggle for his restitution to office and the emergence of an independent judiciary in Pakistan. All man-made institutions are fallible and subject to human error. This is particularly true of transitional institutions of which Pakistan's emerging independent judiciary is but one. Only those who support human rights abuse and abusers, who hanker after a return to dictatorship and seek to see the independence of the judiciary curtailed or tailored to specific anti-rights agendas would oppose such scrutiny.

And of course it is HRW's mandate to raise its voice against abuse, lack of due process or institutional over-reach that may result in injustice by any quarter anywhere in the world and we will not hesitate to do so. Certainly, scurrilous campaigns are not going to deter us.

Does HRW agree that drone strikes violate Pakistan's sovereignty and violate people's rights?

The sovereignty argument is problematic as Pakistan's military, regardless of its public posturing, has been complicit in the drone strikes. But, we consider the business of CIA drone strikes an issue that raises serious human rights concerns. Last year, the US carried out about 75 aerial drone strikes which resulted in claims of large numbers of civilian casualties. Lack of access to the conflict areas has prevented independent verification and HRW has repeatedly called on the Pakistani military which controls access to the conflict zone to provide the same. Little is known about who is killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and under what circumstances. HRW has stated categorically that this unaccountable free-for-all operation, whether with the covert support of the Pakistani military or without, is unacceptable. Given that the US resists public accountability for CIA drone strikes, they should simply not be happening.


Ali Dayan Hasan is Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch.