Dawn Editorial 29 December 2019

Clipping NAB’s wings

THE latest attempt to try and redefine the powers of the National Accountability Bureau, and the manner in which it was done, shows that the aggressive ‘accountability drive’ the PTI launched when it came to power is now in its dying throes.
The redefinition is actually an attempt at a surgical clipping away of the bureau’s powers to even begin an inquiry — let alone investigate, detain and prosecute — wealthy businessmen in particular. The change is being made through a presidential ordinance, as the government does not seem to be able to muster the numbers in parliament to pass legislation — not least because of this very same ‘accountability drive’.
The approval and announcement of the ordinance itself was marred by confusion as whole clauses asked for by the powerful secretaries’ group of the bureaucracy were jettisoned from the final text before promulgation, but communicated to the media nonetheless.
What will emerge from the confusion once the dust settles is a compromise within a compromise. NAB’s powers had to be clipped because the bureau’s monumental incompetence and overweening ambition had caused it to cast its net far wider than it could manage.
But the ordinance has created a double standard, and may well have let the cat out of the bag in the process. All matters related to taxes as well as transactions that do not involve holders of public office will no longer be within NAB’s remit; instead, they will be dealt with by the numerous institutions that already exist for the purpose, such as the FBR, FIA and the accountability courts.
Also, when pursuing cases where the allegation is ‘misuse of authority’ by a public office holder, the bureau will need to prove that there was some material benefit that the accused gained from this alleged ‘misuse of authority’, rather than turning the allegation into the crime itself.
A number of critical questions arise. For one, why can’t there be one across-the-board standard by which to activate the powers of NAB, whether for private or public individuals and transactions? Second, what will the fallout be of these changes on the countless NAB cases already under way, or in appeal, including those in which public office holders are implicated?
Clearly, the ‘aggressive accountability drive’ launched by the government last year has hit its limits and is now being rolled back, leaving behind lacunae and unanswered questions. What this episode teaches us is that, ultimately, accountability is about the writ of the state. If its writ is weak, the weakness will be exploited by all manner of people, whether public or private, for personal gain, and no effort to create new authorities and carve out special laws will fill that void. Perhaps it is time to shut down NAB and focus on strengthening the writ of the state across the board.

 
 

Militant cell

A FEW days ago, the Punjab counterterrorism force and a military intelligence agency smashed a ‘media cell’ of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent in Gujranwala. The cell was being used by the militant group to plan and finance its terrorist operations, and communicate and propagate its message through social media tools. The group, which was being watched by the two agencies for quite some time, had recently relocated to the city from Karachi to avoid action against its operators. The raiding team has arrested five trained members of the group and recovered a large number of laptops carrying encrypted data for communication with senior leaders based in Afghanistan, mobile phones and files containing banned content, cash, suicide jackets, explosives and weapons. The action has helped the authorities avert an attack by the militant organisation against law-enforcement agencies in Punjab. This action against AQIS is being referred to as the most significant development against militants operating out of Punjab in the last two years.
The action taken against militant groups under the National Action Plan during the last few years has made them halt their terror activities. But a couple of recent incidents in Lahore — whose coverage in the media was apparently suppressed by the authorities — demonstrate that the pause could be temporary. The latest action against AQIS underscores the reality that militant groups may be down but are still not out. That eliminates any room, if indeed it exists, for complacency on the part of the agencies tasked with eradicating militancy and terrorist financing in the country. Their job has become even more important after the placement of Pakistan on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force. At the last FATF plenary, Pakistan narrowly escaped being blacklisted, which would have meant depressing consequences for its economic future. The FATF has warned that Pakistan could be downgraded further in February unless it makes significant progress on meeting the global anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing standards. The IMF has again cautioned that Pakistan’s failure to implement global AML/CTF standards could cause the promised capital inflows to freeze up and jeopardise the Fund’s current programme. Pakistan can avoid this hazard only by effectively and swiftly plugging holes in the country’s AML/CTF regime, taking action against the militants, and producing enough evidence to have them convicted in a court of law. The sooner the government acknowledges the challenges publicly, the better it will be for the country.

 
 

Home-based workers

AT a recent discussion held at the Karachi Press Club, speakers representing the Home-based Women Workers Federation complained about the blatant exploitation faced by those in this informal sector. They noted that the sector is growing each year as factory work is increasingly outsourced to home-based workers, often on a piece-rate system, and yet there has been no change in their lives or the nature of their work. Despite being one of the largest workforces that contributes immensely to Pakistan’s economy, they continue to suffer poor wages and mistreatment at the hands of middlemen and contractors. For years, they had little negotiating power and virtually no social safety net. Many reported developing physical impairments and health complications from the painstakingly detailed work they engage in, which consumed many hours of their day, in addition to their daily household chores. Additionally, the perceived lower status of women also means they get paid less than their male counterparts for the same amount of work. Unfortunately, women’s labour continues to be overlooked, especially when it is restricted to the home. And yet, many have no choice but to be confined within the four walls of their homes as their mobility is often limited in patriarchal cultures. The informal nature of the work also results in home-based workers receiving help from other members of the family living in the house. This can include their children, who should be in school, pursuing their right to an education.
Thanks to the decade-long tireless efforts of the workers, the Sindh Home-based Workers Act was passed in 2018 — but its rules of business are yet to be finalised. As articulated by the speakers at the conference, this needs to be done on an urgent basis to ensure the workers receive their due rights. And while legislation is a necessary first step in ensuring rights, the government must see to it that it is implemented on ground. There can be no progress until half the population is counted as an equal stakeholder in every aspect of life.

 
 

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