Dawn Editorial 22nd May 2024

Holding Israel accountable

ALTHOUGH the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor wants arrest warrants to be issued for Israel’s prime minister and defence minister, as well as three top Hamas leaders, for possible war crimes, it is unlikely the move will lead to justice for Gaza’s bloodied people. This is the second major effort in the global legal arena to hold Israel to account for its atrocities after South Africa initiated genocide proceedings against the Zionist state at the International Court of Justice. While Hamas officials have said that warrants against their leaders amount to equating the “victim with the executioner”, Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the ICC’s move “with disgust”. US President Joe Biden has termed it “outrageous”, adding that there can be “no equivalence between Israel and Hamas”. The latter part of Mr Biden’s assertion is actually true — although it is not precisely what he intended to convey. While excesses against civilians cannot be condoned, Palestinian groups have fought for their land and freedom. Israel, meanwhile, has been waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians since the Nakba, with the Gaza carnage the latest chapter in this saga. So a comparison is indeed unfair.

The ICC has previously issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, with neither leader brought to court. It is unlikely that Mr Netanyahu and his defence minister — with their powerful patrons shielding them — will ever end up in The Hague to answer for their crimes. But the list of barbaric acts unleashed upon Palestine’s people and neighbouring Arab populations by the Israelis and their Zionist forbears is a long one. The Nakba, Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatila, Qana, and the ongoing genocidal campaign in Gaza are just a few of the massacres involving Israel. While the international legal system may not be able to punish their tormentors, history has already passed judgement in favour of Palestine’s children.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2024

Out of the abyss

ENFORCED disappearances remain a persistent blight on fundamental human rights in the country. Recent exchanges between the judiciary and government during Islamabad High Court hearings have once again brought the issue to the forefront, highlighting the need for accountability and reform. On Monday, Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani delivered a stern rebuke to intelligence agencies for their alleged involvement in the abductions of individuals such as Kashmiri poet Ahmed Farhad Shah. Justice Kayani’s insistence that intelligence agencies shed the perception of culpability in such ‘disappearances’ underscores the judiciary’s frustration with the practice. Following Monday’s hearing, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar described the remarks as “inappropriate”, arguing that courts should dispense justice in accordance with the law and the Constitution without “sensationalising” issues. Mr Tarar’s argument reflects a broader reluctance within the government to hold state institutions accountable. This attitude not only undermines the rule of law but also perpetuates a culture of impunity.

Regrettably, political parties in Pakistan exhibit a Janus-faced approach to enforced disappearances. When in opposition, they vocally support the families of the missing, visiting protest camps and promising justice. Yet, once in power, they make excuses like “the issue is complex” and “cannot be resolved overnight”. This duplicity perpetuates the cycle of impunity and suffering. The case of Mr Shah is a stark example. Despite assurances from intel services and the defence ministry, Mr Shah remains unaccounted for, with his family left in anguish. Justice Kayani’s call for clear working procedures for intelligence agencies and his insistence on their adherence to legal boundaries are steps in the right direction. However, these steps must be backed by concrete actions and genuine political will. This includes ignoring a section of hawkish politicians who insist that missing persons are “terrorists”. If individuals are suspected of wrongdoing, they should be tried in accordance with the law. Enforced disappearances not only inflict immense suffering on the families of the victims but also erode public trust in state institutions. The judiciary’s recent observations are a reminder that the state’s duty is to protect its citizens, not to instil fear through unlawful abductions. The authorities must shed this dark legacy of enforced disappearances and help the country emerge from the abyss. The agony has lingered for far too long.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2024

Bulldozed bill

WHY is the Punjab government so keen on imposing dangerous legislation that would be unacceptable to any self-respecting society? The forced passage of the Defamation Bill 2024 over the protestations of both journalists and opposition lawmakers in the Punjab Assembly on Monday is a troubling reminder of how the PML-N has abandoned its principles ever since it returned to power.

Where once the party was championing the people and their voices, it is now devising new means to silence them. It has been said before but needs to be stressed again: this new law will likely come back to bite it. The party had previously introduced the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, which became a noose around its neck once it fell out of favour with the establishment. Those who were urging the Punjab government to get all stakeholders on board merely wanted it to avoid repeating that mistake.

In a demonstration held after the Monday session of the Punjab Assembly, the Lahore Press Club president recalled that Punjab Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz had joined the protests when the PTI had been attempting to strengthen Peca to make it more effective in suppressing public criticism. But here she was now, going ahead with equally condemnable legislation “aimed at gagging the media”.

Was her earlier position based merely on political expediency? Has her party considered what the consequences of such a law would be in case it once again runs afoul of the powers that be? The last time this happened, its leadership was still able to vent its frustration and publicly name those whom it held responsible. The ability to do so kept it alive politically. The next time it happens, the party and its leaders would be condemned to suffer in silence thanks to the law they have just passed.

Defamation is a societal problem, not something that concerns the Punjab government alone. The journalists’ community had merely asked the Punjab government for a week to reconsider the law and arrive at a consensus. Meanwhile, the opposition had suggested certain changes to the law, some of which, it seems, could have improved it considerably.

By involving these two stakeholders in its deliberations, the government in Lahore would have had the opportunity to make the law fairer and acceptable to everyone. That it chose to push them aside suggests a disinclination to honour the democratic principles of the legislative process and, instead, a tendency to impose its will on the people.

This disregard for the opposition and other dissenting voices — now seen in multiple successive governments — is the primary reason why the Pakistani political process seems unable to deliver. The Punjab government must withdraw this dangerous bill and engage with other stakeholders. There is still time.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2024

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