Hoagland was told that the hearing was unacceptable as it was tantamount to interference in the internal affairs of the country, the Foreign Office said in a statement.
ISLAMABAD – An unprecedented open hearing by the United States House of Representatives on human-rights violations in Pakistan’s trouble-ridden Balochistan province, coupled with bitter criticism of the Pakistani state by two well-reputed international human-rights organizations for its failure to protect civilians from the security agencies, has raised many eyebrows in the Pakistani military establishment that alleges suspicious motives on the part of the Americans.
Amid heightening civil-military conflict in Pakistan’s largest province, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have said that Pakistani security forces and the intelligence agencies are resorting to grave human-rights abuses in Balochistan.
While the AI has called on the US to ensure that assistance for the Pakistani military stationed in Balochistan is not channeled into abuse, HRW has asked the US to take action against glaring human-rights violations in Balochistan, where enforced disappearances are causing misery.
The two groups have criticized the Pakistani security forces for their alleged involvement in forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of Baloch nationalists. That criticism and the February 8 debate in the US Congress brought a strong reaction from the country’s all-powerful security establishment, with army chief General Ashfaq Kiani saying no military operations were being carried out in Balochistan and that no security forces had been involved in human-rights violations.
Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, clearly agitated over the poor situation, had said during a hearing in March 2011 that the government should take practical steps instead of issuing policy statements regarding abduction and targeted killings in Balochistan.
Significantly, during the course of the same court proceedings, Balochistan’s Advocate General Salahuddin Mengal observed that the people of Balochistan recovered bodies day in and day out because the Frontier Constabulary and police were lifting people in broad daylight at will. “We are helpless. Who can check the Frontier Constabulary? End the burning issue of missing persons first and then blame the Balochistan government for not controlling law and order,” he added.
Balochistan is the most meticulously controlled garrison province of Pakistan and has always had a tense relationship with the central government, mainly due to the touchy issues of provincial autonomy and control of mineral resources.
The intensity of human-rights abuses in the province can be gauged from the statistics provided by the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The bodies of at least 241 “missing persons” were recovered from various parts of the province between July 2010 and December 2011, while in the same period at least 188 cases of enforced disappearance were reported – many of whom turn up dead after being dumped in desolate places, according to the commission’s data. For the HRCP, the fact that not even a single individual has been held accountable is a matter of regret.
International criticism of the situation in Balochistan is in line with the HRCP’s contention that the affairs of the province cannot be set right so long as its fate is decided exclusively by the security establishment. A fact-finding HRCP mission to Balochistan between May 4 and 7, 2011 reported:
Enforced disappearances continue to be a matter of great concern. It has been noted that bodies recovered have had signs of extreme torture. All authority seems to vest with the security forces. The civil administration, elected by the people and meant to represent them, appears to have ceded its powers.
The notoriety of the province for extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances was behind the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs’ decision to hold its open hearing on Balochistan on February 8.
Amnesty International, in its submission to the committee, called on the Pakistan government to end enforced disappearances that target Baloch nationalists, an increasing number of whom are being found dead days or months after disappearing. It called on Pakistan to bring all perpetrators of abuses to justice, provide fair trials to those brought to justice and ensure any military operations comply with international humanitarian laws.
The group also called on all non-state armed groups in Balochistan to refrain from committing human-rights abuses, respect the laws of Pakistan and also ensure that the civilians were not exposed to violence.
“Balochistan is one of the most militarized regions of Pakistan, with the military, paramilitary Frontier Corp and the Levies [another paramilitary force], and police stationed across this vast province,” AI said in the briefing paper. “Despite this presence, or perhaps because of it, Balochistan is one of the most dangerous parts of Pakistan, with armed groups affiliated with the state, sectarian armed groups, armed groups hostile to the state, and criminal gangs operating with near complete impunity,” the paper noted.
Amnesty warned that the province is gradually heading to a state of perpetual conflict that threatens stability not only in Pakistan but also in the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Iran, and throughout the region. “The fighting between Pakistan forces and armed Baloch groups may reach a level of intensity that would make the laws of war applicable,” it warned, quoting an investigation of its own which showed that at least 249 Baloch activists, teachers, journalists and lawyers disappeared or were killed between October 24, 2010 and September 10, 2011, many in so-called “kill and dump” operations.
Amnesty then called on the US administration to apply the Leahy Amendment to all the Pakistani military units stationed in Balochistan. Application of the amendment would mean the US would have to ensure that American military assistance to the Pakistan military and security forces in Balochistan is not linked to human-rights abuses.
According to Mustafa Qadri, AI’s Pakistan researcher: “There should be no surprises here, the fundamental problem is the total impunity enjoyed by human rights abusers and the failure of the state [of Pakistan] to address the horrendous poverty and disenfranchisement being felt by the Baloch people and other communities.”
A comprehensive report compiled by the Pakistan director of the HRW, Ali Dayan Hasan, has recommended the US government press Pakistan to take all necessary measures to end human-rights violations in Balochistan and to prosecute those responsible for crimes including extra-judicial killings, torture, illegal detention, disappearances and forced displacement.
The report states that government agencies such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Intelligence Bureau, the Frontier Corps and police are responsible for many of the violations and it demands the government take action.
HRW also suggests that the US should press the government to suspend police and military assistance and cooperation programs with the Frontier Corps, the police and army units based in Balochistan until military and civilian authorities fully investigate and take appropriate action against those committing the crimes.
The HRW report urges Pakistan to implement mechanisms to ensure that no security unit funded or trained by the US is responsible for human-rights violations and that adequate vetting and oversight mechanisms are in place to help deter abuses.
The report recommends the US push the Pakistani government to investigate alleged human-rights abuses committed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and other banned militant groups to hold those responsible to account.
It also demands that the Pakistan government take urgent measures to protect members of the Shi’ite community and other vulnerable groups in Balochistan and for the US government to also urge Baloch nationalist groups to cease attacks and threats against all civilians, particularly non-Baloch residents of the province.
Amnesty and HRW took up the issue of forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings in Balochistan shortly after the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the director generals of the ISI and the Military Intelligence to submit reports on senseless and indiscriminate killings in the province.
The court order was issued on January 27 by a three-judge bench headed by Chaudhry during the hearing of a petition about the
breakdown of law and order in the province. The petitioner, a former president of the Balochistan High Court Bar Association, had sought the apex court’s help because the federal and provincial governments had failed to protect life and liberty in Balochistan.
Taking note of the gravity of the situation, the chief justice said it was not the time to sit idle “with our fingers crossed”, and asked the ISI and MI to give their views.
The notices to powerful spy chiefs were described in the Pakistani media as the first serious attempt to put an end to the extra-judicial prerogatives Pakistan’s secret agencies have enjoyed for decades to run a clandestine “state within a state”. A follow-up report on the apex court action published by the New York Times on February 8 stated:
Long unchallenged, Pakistan’s top spy agency faces a flurry of court actions that subject its darkest operations to unusual scrutiny, amid growing calls for new restrictions on its largely untrammeled powers. The cases against the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate have uncertain chances of success and few believe that they can immediately hobble it. But they do represent a rare challenge to a feared institution that is a cornerstone of military supremacy in Pakistan.
United States ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, in a February 12 interview with the BBC’s Urdu Service, stressed that human-rights violations in Balochistan were an area that the Pakistani government needed to address seriously, and one which the US felt should be openly discussed.
He said America had no sinister motive and that the debate over Balochistan in the US Congress should not be misconstrued, since it was normal and routine for all sorts of issues to crop up during debates.
Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, has raised this issue with the Barack Obama administration. “Pakistan views this hearing with serious concern and considers it unacceptable in no uncertain terms. This kind of an exercise constitutes interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs,” said Sherry on February 12.
Almost 24 hours later, the US Charge d’affaires, Richard Hoagland, was summoned to the Pakistan Foreign Office in Islamabad – on February 13 – and was conveyed abhorrence at the “newfound American concern” for Balochistan that was described as “unhelpful for repairing the already strained bilateral relationship”.
The Pakistan government’s serious concern with regard to the hearing held by the US Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations in relation to Balochistan was officially conveyed to him. In a reiteration of the Pakistani position on the US move, Hoagland was told that the hearing was unacceptable as it was tantamount to interference in the internal affairs of the country, the Foreign Office said in a statement.
The next move was the February 14 unanimous adoption of a joint resolution in the National Assembly of Pakistan, condemning the US Congressional hearing on Balochistan as blatant interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. The resolution, moved by the leader of the opposition, Nisar Ali Khan, demanded that the government convey to the US administration in clear terms that such hearings were totally unacceptable.
“The American administration needs to play a more proactive role in discouraging such ill-informed and motivated debates on sensitive issues relating to a sovereign country,” the resolution stated. It added:
In order to rebuild mutual trust and confidence, the US should respect and comply with the will of the people of Pakistan as expressed through various parliamentary resolutions and also discontinue drone attacks. The House noted with great concern that at a time when Pakistan-US relations were already under severe stress, the holding of such hearings would jeopardize the healing process and further inflame public opinion against the United States. It would also add to the prevailing sense of mistrust and suspicion regarding US intentions towards Pakistan.
Approached for comments, a senior military official at the General Headquarters, who requested not to be identified, said that the sudden worry expressed by the US Congress about human-rights violations in Balochistan could be part of larger strategy that may have little to do with human-rights abuses, given the fact that the Americans have always been suspicious of the Chinese investment in the region, especially in the Gawadar area of Balochistan.
Pakistan’s leading English newspaper Dawn described the US congressional hearing on Balochistan as one of the more bizarre and unnecessary public demonstrations of US involvement in Pakistan’s affairs. Its February 12 editorial it said:
The US congressional hearing on Balochistan had suspicious motives, a vague purpose and an interfering tone, a combination that is all the more dangerous at this particular point in time and for this particular topic. Consider the context. Based on a mix of fact and fiction, the United States has a reputation amongst the Pakistani public for long having interfered in its internal affairs. And Wednesday’s hearings will directly fuel that paranoia, with attendant consequences for state-level diplomacy.
The possibility of another response by the Pakistan authorities was outlined by Pakistani English-language daily, The Express Tribune, which in looking at the problem from a different angle, suggested that rather than act in anger, “a better response may be to change its existing policy on Balochistan in a manner that the wishes of the local population are factored in”. That, the newspaper said, was the best way to ensure the situation improved and that separatist feelings were quelled.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.
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