While US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Pakistan on Tuesday, the Pakistani government executed by hanging seven men convicted of alleged terrorism offenses. The hangings were the latest in a surge of executions the government has carried out in response to the horrific December attack by a Pakistani Taliban splinter group on a school in Peshawar in which 132 children were killed.
Human Rights Watch, like Secretary Kerry, condemned the Peshawar attack in December. However, the Pakistani government’s deeply problematic response to the attack later led us to write to Kerry before his visit, urging him to raise key human rights issues that have worsened since the Peshawar atrocity. Those concerns include Islamabad’s recent decision to prosecute civilian terrorism suspects in military courts, despite such courts’ record for riding roughshod over constitutional guarantees of due process. We also raised concerns about the government’s lifting of a moratorium on the death penalty and the spate of injudicious executions, 17 prisoners to date, none of whom had any connection to the Peshawar attack.
We didn’t expect Kerry during his visit to publicly denounce Pakistan’s responses since the Peshawar attack. But we did expect him to point out the how the excesses of those responses imperil fundamental human rights and the rule of law. Instead, the people of Pakistan were shown Kerry standing by the side of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, commending the Pakistan government’s counterterrorism efforts.
Kerry should have known better than to remain so silent. Both he and the United States have condemned the barbarism and “depravity” of terrorism, but countering terrorism should not involve measures that also show callous disregard for human life.
Tackling the murderous theatre of terrorism is not about putting on theatre of your own. It’s about undertaking fair and well-tailored law enforcement and addressing underlying elements that allow extremist groups to form and grow in the first place. Kerry would be better placed to press Pakistan’s leaders, as he has in the past, to rein in their own security forces, which have repeatedly and disastrously allowed such groups to burgeon across the country. Pakistan needs to address the dangerous threat extremist groups pose to its citizens, but trampling on human rights is not the way to accomplish that.