US drone strikes have caused an outrage in Pakistan where thousands of young impressionable Pakistanis have taken to the streets. Until last week, the demonstrators had disrupted Nato supplies travelling through Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to register their protest.
With political gains and expediencies involved, Pakistan’s foremost politicians have publicly canvassed the drone strikes as a violation of national sovereignty and honour. Public opinion has been diverted from the more organic and distressing issue of internal human rights abuses against Pakistan’s ethnic and religious minorities to the populist and emotional one of drone strikes.
While civilian casualties, as a result of these external strikes, are a reality, it is important for the people of Pakistan to also protest and denounce abuses that are a result of internal Pakistani policies and are well within the control of the state. However, political manipulation and lack of national awareness and public empathy have so far ensured that these abuses continue unchecked.
The masses of Pakistan are ideally placed to influence and pressure the government into stopping these human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. Raising their voices against the four major issues highlighted below will safeguard their national unity, security and welfare.
1) The fundamental rights of tribal Pashtuns
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) usually see the front page of Pakistani newspapers when Pakistanis are angry about US drones. But little do most Pakistanis know that Fata is home to over three million Pashtuns, deprived of legal and political rights and faced with enormous economic problems.
Fata is governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) – a 19th-century law that the British devised as an instrument of subjugation and to establish the writ of the colonial authority.
Despite some changes made to the law in 2011 on a piece of paper, FCR in practice continues, over a hundred years later, to deny the people of Fata basic justice. The law has famously denied tribal people three basic rights — “appeal, wakeel, daleel” (the right to appeal their detention; the right to an attorney; and the right to present evidence).
It has been used to collectively punish families and tribes for the crimes of individuals. It has also allowed a federally appointed executive to exercise all executive as well as judicial powers, serving as the final arbiter of justice in cases, even including those where he is the accused.
Likewise, many of the political rights enjoyed by Pakistanis continue to be denied to those living in the tribal areas. While the tribal people have the right to vote, they do not have the right to elect their own administrative heads, known as political agents.
Political agents, who are widely considered corrupt, are appointed by the federal government and not accountable to the tribal people. Moreover, Fata has no provincial assembly. Federally, Fata has elected representatives in the parliament, but those representatives have no say in the administration of Fata because no act of parliament applies to Fata.
On top of denying these fundamental human rights to the tribal people, Pakistan has invested little to no resources in Fata. The area remains one of the poorest and least developed parts of the country. The people of Fata lag far behind much of the rest of Pakistan in infrastructure, education, healthcare and other basic services.
2) The rights and lives of the Baloch
Hundreds of brutally tortured and mutilated bodies of young students, political activists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers turn up every few weeks in different corners of Balochistan.
Their eyes scooped out, genitals bearing marks of electric prods, limbs broken, parts of their bodies drilled and their faces lacerated beyond recognition. Yet, their tormentors still want them to be recognised and the whole town to witness the burial, so they very carefully leave a note with their names in the pockets of their blood drenched shirts.
This is the end that many young Baloch men meet in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and most resource-rich province that provides billions in revenues to the state. There are hundreds of people still missing, allegedly picked up by intelligence agencies and the military’s Frontier Corps (FC).
Their families move from one city to another, knocking on the doors of the judiciary, observing hunger strikes, holding sit-ins and demonstrations outside press clubs and covering hundreds of miles on foot to register their protest. Their aim is to seek an answer from the state on one simple question: “Where are the young and bright men of our families?”
The reasons for their abduction, torture and murder range anywhere from demanding a fair share in the resources extracted from their land to speaking against ongoing human rights abuses.
According to the Human Rights Watch, there is undisputed evidence that point towards the involvement of the Frontier Corps, Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence in these murders and abductions. The helpless locals have nothing more left to say except that their “lives are now clouded in darkness. Asking for our rights is akin to a death wish.”
3) Stand up against the internal support for Taliban
It is widely accepted by the international community that Pakistan helped create and then later supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is likewise largely undisputed that certain segments of the Pakistani security forces to this day continue to support the Afghan Taliban. Most of the Taliban today have taken refuge inside Pakistan, near the Afghan border.
Consequently, Pakistan’s northwest, often characterised as one of the most dangerous places on earth, has become ground zero in global ‘jihad’. The militants, many of whom come from outside Pakistan, have internally displaced millions of people from their villages, killed thousands of innocent civilians and subjected tens of millions of people to daily terror. They operate with impunity in Pakistan’s territory where they destroy the homes, schools, hospitals and mosques of local Pashtuns. They also attract US drones to the tribal areas.
4) Pakistanis should protect the rights and lives of religious minorities
Prominent Shia doctors, lawyers, clergy and scholars continue to lose their lives to targeted acts of violence on a frequent basis. Shia neighbourhoods and places of worships remain a priority target for extremist organisations functioning across Pakistan. Hundreds of Hazara Shias have been killed in bomb blasts and other targeted violence.
Another ostracised community, the Ahmedis, declared non-Muslims by the state’s amended constitution, live in the dark shadow of secrecy and fear. They know that their identity, if disclosed, endangers not just their lives but also restricts access to jobs, education, housing etc.
Similarly, unfortunate for Pakistani Christians, this September, a church bombing in Peshawar killed 85 people, including women and children. Today, hundreds of Christians are languishing in jails across Pakistan, facing charges of blasphemy.
Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law, which carries a possible death penalty, for anyone accused of insulting or criticising Islam, its scriptures or its last Prophet. The law has become a convenient tool to settle personal scores against vulnerable citizens.
The dwindling Hindu population is not any safer. Hindu girls in Sindh are frequently abducted by extremist groups and forced to convert and marry into Muslim families. With religious intolerance and sectarian violence growing out-of-control, it is hard to figure out what is worse in this state: To be a non-Muslim or to be the wrong kind of Muslim.
Despite such horrific conditions faced by the Baloch, tribal Pashtuns and religious minorities, politicians have led zero protests in solidarity with their fellow citizens.
There is a deafening silence and even a defensive denial by some leaders on the issue of internal support for the Taliban as well as abuse of Baloch, Pashtun and religious minorities. If anything, those often loudest about US drones have led the charge to oppose efforts to improve the conditions of Pakistan’s minorities.
Given that Pakistani leaders largely control the fate of these ethnic and religious minorities, the people of Pakistan can have a far greater influence to help promote equality and peace for all than they do over US drones. They, therefore, must speak for the voiceless. This is a way for Pakistanis to show that they care about the lives and rights of all Pakistanis at all times, not just when US drones are involved.