DAWN Editorials – 5th Dec 2022

Double standards

IN a globalised world, if states fail to protect the human rights of their citizens, or worse, participate in abuses, the international community takes notice. However, problems arise when accountability for rights abuses is politicised, where allies are given a free pass, and geopolitical adversaries are raked over the coals. The US State Department’s annual Religious Freedom Designations listing very much appears to be a politicised project, where the above-mentioned dichotomy is clearly visible. This year, just as last year, Pakistan has been retained on the list of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ where religious rights’ violations are concerned. Other states on this dubious list include China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. With the exception of the Saudis, all of the states listed are geopolitical adversaries of the US, while it is not apparent whether Washington considers Pakistan a friend or a foe. But there is one glaring exception: India. In the press release announcing the listing, the US secretary of state has castigated governments and non-state actors that “harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs” and “exploit opportunities for political gain”. India under the BJP’s watch very much fits the bill.

According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom — a bipartisan body of the American federal government — the Indian government’s policies “negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits” while the outfit clearly recommends that the American administration should designate India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’, and impose sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for religious persecution. Has Secretary of State Antony Blinken not read the USCIRF report? This paper has always argued that the state in Pakistan needs to do much more to protect the rights of religious minorities in this country. Yet the US State Department’s listing of Pakistan and exclusion of India as violators of religious freedom smacks of hypocrisy. Instead of individual states sermonising to others, bodies such as the UN should be used to discuss rights’ violations, so that states can explain their positions.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2022

Dodging accountability

A WARNING carried in these pages in August appears to have gone completely unheeded. Months ago, as the government was bulldozing legislation after legislation through parliament to ‘reform’ the prevailing accountability laws, concern had been raised that the sweeping changes being made could completely paralyse ongoing efforts to hold powerful wrongdoers accountable. It fell on deaf ears. The government appears to have been concerned solely with saving its leaders’ skins as it proceeded to gut the National Accountability Bureau and defang its governing law, the National Accountability Ordinance, without putting a robust alternative system in place. A rather outrageous consequence of this self-serving ‘reform’ effort manifested itself on Thursday, as property magnate Malik Riaz was able to walk away ‘scot-free’ from a multibillion-rupee corruption reference related to Karachi’s Bahria Icon Tower.

Neither Mr Riaz nor the many megaprojects he oversees are known for above-board operations. The Icon Tower skyscraper partly occupies an amenity plot that would hardly have been meant for housing the rich; yet, somehow, it ended up in Bahria Town’s hands. When a three-year-old reference regarding the legality of this deal was brought before an accountability court judge on Thursday, he was forced to close it because he no longer has jurisdiction over the matter. The suspects nominated in the reference had filed applications seeking this outcome, citing recent amendments made by the PDM government to the National Accountability Ordinance to make their case. The reference is now once again with NAB, which is supposed to transmit it onward to a “competent forum”. One wonders if there is any hope that we may see further progress in this case. The impunity with which the powerful seem to be operating was evident when Mr Riaz failed to show up before NAB on the same day in connection with another suspicious multibillion-rupee land deal that he was allegedly involved in. “You are advised that failure to comply with this notice may entail penal consequences under NAO 1999,” the real estate tycoon had been warned. It had no effect. While NAB has earned its reputation of being a failed institution that serves little purpose other than to settle political scores, the need had been for the government to fix it, not cripple it completely. The PDM government is itself responsible for giving credence to those who feel it came into power to give ‘NROs’ to the corrupt.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2022

Extension legacy

LAST Tuesday marked an unenviable end to six years of near-absolute power. Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa would not have wanted to go as he did, spurned by friend and foe alike. Even the general public — usually so enamoured of men in uniform — seemed unforgiving as he hung up his boots, with many taking to social media to express their criticism.

It is unfortunate that it had to be so, and the retired general will no doubt spend many a moment of solitude pondering where it all went wrong. Was it ambition that became his undoing, or naiveté? That question will rankle him as he comes to terms with the legacy he leaves behind.

His thoughts will eventually turn to how he may have been remembered had he retired on time. It would seem, in retrospect, that doffing the uniform three years ago could have at least saved him from the many controversies that arose during his last months in office.

Gen Bajwa is not the only army chief who squandered his prestige by sticking around for longer than he ought to have. Others before him who also overstayed their tenure suffered more or less similar fates, leaving it to their institution to pay the price for their hubris.

This publication has long argued against service extensions unless these have to be made purely for strategic purposes during an ongoing war. The practice of having individuals carry on well beyond their time is up — and, in the process, denying successive batches of capable officers the chance to lead and mould their institution in new ways — weakens the armed forces by eroding their prestige. It has tied the military and the executive together in a co-dependent relationship, in which one side invariably ends up using its leverage on the other for quid pro quo arrangements that may extend its grip on power.

Indeed, if the army is serious about its recent commitment to detaching itself from domestic politics, it should, as a starting step, encourage a legislative initiative to do away with this practice completely. The civilian leadership, too, must take the opportunity to bury this harmful precedent rather than find new ways to enforce it, such as the amendments to the Army Act that were recently being considered.

The army chief should come in for a term, lead it capably, chart a course for the future in consultation with his prospective successors, and then depart on time and gracefully — without any of the needless speculation and political machinations seen this year. There is no shortage of capable people in the forces that just one should be considered indispensable.

The outgoing year has shown us that Pakistan has changed — perhaps irreversibly so — and that it cannot be business as usual in matters such as these. It is time our system evolved as well.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2022

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