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After years of obfuscation, denial, inertia and negligence, the state of Pakistan appears to be collectively waking up to the nightmare that is Balochistan today.

A quick succession of events suggests that finally all the principal stakeholders — government and opposition political parties, the higher judiciary and, most crucially, the military and intelligence agencies — are acknowledging that the province stands on the political precipice.

For years, human rights groups and independent media, both within Pakistan and internationally, have been sounding alarm bells about the rapid deterioration of rights protections and basic security in Balochistan. These pleas were ignored at best or greeted with positive hostility and counter-accusations of bias and malicious intent.

The PPP government, which came to power apologising to the people of Balochistan for state abuses, quickly learned to deny the abuses it seems unable to prevent. Caught up in its own power-play with the military and brinkmanship with the judiciary, the federal government appeared to have little time or energy to address the rights abuses that undermine efforts to reach a meaningful political settlement in the province.

Meanwhile, enforced disappearances, targeted killings, torture and political persecution, both by the state and those opposing or allied with it, have steadily increased.

The 15-point declaration following a conference on Balochistan convened by the Supreme Court Bar Association on May 26 provided the first clear indication that the main political forces are, at least rhetorically, willing to speak with one voice on Balochistan. The conference emphasised a political rather than a military solution in Balochistan. The federal government’s announcement on May 30 of the formation of a six-member committee to begin dialogue with Baloch dissidents is particularly noteworthy given that army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was present and agreed to the move. Most crucially, at the same meeting chaired by the prime minister and attended by top military and political officials, it was decided that the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) would be placed under political rather than military control by handing effective control to the Balochistan chief minister. Then on Sunday, Mr Gilani said in Quetta that the welfare of the Baloch people was his priority.

These measures may yet turn out to be ineffective or cosmetic and they only deal with one of many political fault-lines in the province. But they do merit appreciation, encouragement and examination. So, what has triggered the beginnings of a rethink on Balochistan? Is a change of course in the province sustainable and what will it take to make it so?

The sad truth is that the process began with the shockwaves that went through the Pakistani political and military establishment as a consequence of US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s decision in February to hold a congressional hearing on the situation and to openly support independence for the province. Rohrabacher’s political posturing on Balochistan is both ill-advised and ill-informed, yet his actions have served to jolt the Pakistani military into the realisation that the world will not turn a blind eye as it presides over egregious abuses. The military surmises, perhaps correctly, that if it has an Achilles heel, its adversaries will zero in on it.

However, within Pakistan, much of the credit for keeping Balochistan centre-stage goes to the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. While the judiciary’s activism in other spheres has generated deserved controversy in recent months, it has taken a strong and welcome stand on the scourge of disappearances in Balochistan. Indeed, the persistence with which the court has sought to hold the perpetrators of abuse in Balochistan, particularly the FC, to account is admirable. Yet, in several observations, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has expressed frustration, even anger, at the refusal of the FC and other abusive agencies to meaningfully submit to judicial oversight. Similarly, the SC has also expressed its displeasure at the federal and provincial governments’ failure to address the crisis.

While the judiciary is an important, even critical enabler, the limits of judicial power are also in evidence in Balochistan. Judicial oversight is certainly part of the solution, but the fact remains that the crisis has largely been caused by the military, so it requires a newfound commitment by the military to end abuses and hold its forces accountable. No Pakistani court has been able to achieve this through judicial orders alone. So the game-changer can only be a change of heart by the security forces, based on awareness that their actions are part of a vicious cycle, from the top of the military and intelligence establishments. But even an about-face by the military on accountability won’t address all the issues in Balochistan. That will need a cross-party political consensus on requiring the army, the FC and the intelligence agencies to sufficiently change their ways so that Baloch dissidents desire to come to the table. In other areas of mutual interest, the major government and opposition parties have shown both the will and the capacity to force concessions from the military. It appears they have now, tentatively, decided that Balochistan is such an area of interest.

A combination of domestic political consensus, judicial activism, international pressure and a realisation of the gravity of the crisis has forced the military to at least appear to reconsider its approach to Balochistan. But this moment is both unusual and fleeting if it is not seized and cemented. Even as the state expresses its resolve to effect a new, viable political compact in the province, Baloch nationalists continue to disappear, suffer torture and be killed. The story of Balochistan in the Pakistani federation has all too often been a case of one step forward, two steps backwards. But there can be no stepping back anymore, for two steps back lies the abyss.

Ali Dayan Hasan is Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch. 

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