South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in Daily Times on Aug. 06 :: 

Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif’s government has been under fire recently. The military was unhappy with his treatment of former president Pervez Musharraf; the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) under Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri respectively are threatening protests and civil disturbance; the PPP has recently been critical of his decisions, such as asking the army to handle Islamabad’s security. The PPP, like the PML-N, is worried about what they both see as ‘threats to democracy’, which loosely translated means military interference in politics or a coup, and their agenda has been supportive of the government where they see that the democratic system might be compromised. The government has stated repeatedly that no forces will be allowed to “derail democracy”. The PM reiterated this on Monday, saying that no one would be allowed to “create a law and order problem”. This thinly veiled jab at Imran Khan is part of months of recrimination in which the PML-N has accused him of trying to attain power through extra-constitutional means. The question that arises is, does making something ‘constitutional’ or ‘legal’ also make it democratic? In Pakistan a prevailing view is that the state does us a favour by ‘granting’ us our democratic rights, but this is not the truth. It is in fact the state’s obligation to protect rights that we already possess, that are fundamental and inalienable. This is good for the state as well because rights are best understood as essential to the functioning of a healthy society. Democracy is the offspring of said society, when it mutually agrees upon and enacts laws to provide governance. 

Can Pakistan be properly called a democracy because we have elections? One would have to argue that this is not the description. In a democracy the state subordinates other activities to the protection of the people’s rights. So what democracy is the PM worried about that allows a parliamentarians house to be raided without a warrant, and for his colleagues to be held without charge for 60 days? That is a very long time in the hands of Pakistani policemen. The incident involving MQM parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar took place on Monday night in Karachi when his house was raided by Rangers and police who arrested two MQM workers on suspicion of extortion and target-killing, though the party says they are innocent. This intrusive action is currently legal under the recently passed Protection of Pakistan Act (PPA) that allows law enforcement officials to conduct warrantless searches and even shoot suspects on sight. Human rights activists expressed concern that giving Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt and brutal police forces carte blanche in this manner was a recipe for human rights abuses. Political parties including the PPP were worried that the law could be used to persecute political opponents. The MQM is especially sensitive in this matter. MQM parliamentarians staged a walk-out from the National Assembly (NA) in protest, as they did when the law was passed, but they should be asked why they are surprised. Given the history of Pakistani law enforcement, abuses of the PPA are inevitable. The few amendments made at the behest of opposition parties did nothing to ameliorate the severe debilitation of due process the law represents or protect the fundamental rights of citizens that it negates. Why did the MQM and PPP,  the JUI-F and JI, which all had reservations about the law, not work together in parliament to oppose the PPA or amend it substantially so that it respects fundamental rights in line with the Constitution? Their post facto protests now that the Ordinance has become law are useless posturing and represent a failure of the political class to protect the rights of the people they represent. For the PM though, the lesson should be clear; it is not coincidence that opposition to his government grew as soon as the PPA was raised in parliament. Every attempt in Pakistan’s history to limit fundamental rights has only decreased the authority of parliament and consequently of the office of PM. If you want others to respect democracy, you must first do so yourself.