Dawn Editorial 3 January 2021

Rs10m fine

THANKFULLY, there are some quarters in Pakistan willing to use their authority to signal the unacceptability of forcibly disappearing people. Usually, for much of officialdom, the issue of missing people is the elephant in the room they had much rather ignore. On Friday, the Islamabad High Court took the unprecedented step of slapping a Rs10m fine on the authorities for their failure in tracing the whereabouts of Ghulam Qadir who has been missing since six years. Justice Mohsin Kayani singled out the defence and interior secretaries and the SSP and SHO of the police station concerned as the government functionaries at fault in the matter. The court thus disposed of the petition filed by Mr Qadir’s brother, but warned the authorities that if he was not recovered in a month’s time, they would face a departmental inquiry.
It has often fallen to the courts to lend an ear to the desperate families of the victims and attempt to shake the authorities out of their torpor. Former chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry made a concerted effort to address the issue, even summoning intelligence officials for questioning — which was unheard of. However, as far as penalties go, the Rs10m fine is the most severe by far. Fines of Rs2m have been imposed twice before, also by the IHC, in July 2020 and November 2018 for the same reason on relevant government functionaries. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances whose twofold mandate is to trace the missing and hold the perpetrators accountable has utterly failed in the latter function. Despite its considerable powers, the commission appears indifferent to the importance of its role in curbing enforced disappearances, to the anguish of the victims’ families. Its November 2020 press release noted that 6,854 cases in total had come before the commission. Of these, 4,782 cases had been disposed of by Nov 30. ‘Disposal’ here means simply that the whereabouts of the missing individuals have been determined. The entries of the 21 cases ‘disposed of’ in November are telling: they manifest no attempt to get to the bottom of why the missing person was abducted in the first place or to punish the perpetrators. Instead, there is a passive acceptance of the facts. Enforced disappearances are an egregious violation of fundamental rights to security of person and due process. Does the commission have no desire to see real justice done?



Opposition unity

THE new announcement by the Pakistan Democratic Movement that it will participate in the upcoming by-polls is a promising indicator of its members’ ability to show flexibility for the sake of the alliance — and a sign that the government should not take the PDM threat lightly.
That the 11-party alliance will contest the by-elections on two National Assembly seats and six provincial assembly seats despite some of the members expressing reservations earlier shows that, while differences of opinion exist on some key issues, the PDM has the resolve to stay together and persist in its opposition to the government.
The differences are obvious. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a hardliner with nothing to lose; Maryam Nawaz is reeling from the government onslaught on her family and party; and the PPP is hedging its bets. But the common goal, as evidenced by the PDM chairman’s speech on Friday, is that these parties will no longer tolerate the interference of the security establishment in matters of civilian governance. While the various members of the alliance use words of varying degrees of severity when speaking of this alleged meddling — some harsh and others less so — the messages being sent to both the government and security establishment are from one stage and platform.
The PDM has several hurdles to overcome and critical issues to resolve in the coming days — resignations and the Senate elections being the key challenges — and its future will be determined by the alliance’s ability to build consensus in a politically uncertain environment. But the movement’s common goal thus far has been a unifying factor.
If the alliance manages to stay together and move forward even with the coming challenges, the government and the security establishment must not take their demands and warnings lightly. The threatened long march, if it materialises, can trigger a season of dread. It was not too long ago that the country, especially the citizens and administration in the capital, were both fixated with and paralysed by Mr Khan’s anti-government dharna. Although his key demands were not met and the dharna was eventually called off, the prolonged sit-in made governance and security a huge challenge. The political uncertainty was palpable and its effects on the economy as well as the message to the international community were significant.
A PDM-led long march, given the number of member parties and the size of their rallies thus far, will be a thorn in the government’s side. Depending on what kind of power show the alliance can pull off and how long it will be sustained for, it is not too early to think about which side will prevail.
For Mr Khan to think this is going to fizzle out and go away is naive. In this environment, the government must end its posturing and reflect on the fallout of an upcoming crisis. Dialogue is a wise next step.



Uneasy times

WITH only a few weeks left before Donald Trump exits the White House, the situation in the Middle East — particularly the Gulf — remains precarious, with fears that the US president may up the ante in the region in the final days of his administration. According to a tweet by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the US is preparing a pretext for war with his country. Mr Zarif’s apprehensions have been strengthened by the fact that the US recently sent two B52 bombers to the region, while speculations are rife that Washington may strike pro-Tehran militias in Iraq, or Iran itself. The situation has been tense since America assassinated top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis a year ago on this day. While the threat of war was averted after a few close calls, the unpredictable Mr Trump may deliver a parting shot that can destabilise an already fragile region. Moreover, Iran has said it will enrich uranium up till 20pc, further abandoning its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal, an accord the US left unilaterally. In reaction to the American moves in the region, Mr Zarif has said his country will “openly and directly” defend itself.
Needless to say, any provocation from the Trump administration at this juncture will be a folly of the highest order, though the president’s allies in the Middle East — Israel and some of the Gulf Arabs — would not oppose it. It will instantly torpedo any chances of a rapprochement between the US and Iran that Joe Biden may be planning. Therefore, wiser elements in Washington need to ensure that no brinkmanship is resorted to in the transition period. Let the new administration take over, and give it a chance to mend fences with Iran. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic should also refrain from further enrichment and try to engage with the new American president. While US-Iranian rapprochement is highly difficult, it is worth trying when the alternative is conflict.

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