Abuses on the Path to Salvation

Jan 2013

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Reforms to the FCR, announced by Zardari in 2009 and then ratified in 2011, have amounted to empty rhetoric. As the AI researchers observe, they were approved only after the Army was given effective martial law powers under the Action in Aid of Civil Power Regulations (AACPR) in June 2011. In their words, “the AACPR in FATA effectively renders meaningless any of the minimal safeguards included in the FCR Amendment Regulations 2011, and represents a new legal framework for the Armed Forces in PATA that appears designed to circumvent human rights protections contained in the Constitution.” (4)

AI documents the complete impunity with which the military detains, tortures, and executes those it suspects of affinities with the Taliban. No reliable numbers exist, but thanks to the work of lawyers and activists, over 2,000 cases of missing persons have been registered at the Peshawar High Court.(5)  The suspicion remains that these represent a fraction of all those detained.

The alleged treatment of those in military custody makes for harrowing reading. Surviving witnesses interviewed reported relentless, repeated beatings “throughout the day, up to an hour at a time.” (6) Food was minimal, and detainees were kept in the cold for extended periods of time. One of these ex-detainees, Niaz Khan, was held with his brother, Ayub Khan, both of whom were tortured within earshot of each other. Ten days after his release, his brother died in custody.

Families are left entirely in the dark about the circumstances of their relatives’ detention. The father of 40-year-old Gulzar Jan, interviewed by AI, reported accompanying his son to answer charges the Army had leveled against Gulzar. His son was detained, after which his family had no contact from him for two and a half years. “Every night his mother would pray for his health and that he would return soon.” In August 2012, Gulzar’s corpse was brought to the local police station. “When I surrendered my son to the Army’s 7 Baloch Regiment he was a healthy man, he weighed about 85 kgs. When they handed his body back it was about one-third of his previous size.” (7)

Challenges in the courts have had no discernible impact on the military’s practices. In June 2012, the Peshawar High Court actually ordered the release of more than a thousand detainees. The very next day, the body of Jahanzeb Khan–a poultry farmer who had been arrested by Army soldiers in February 2011–was dumped some 80 kilometers from the site of his arrest. Media reports suggested that his body bore signs of torture. Jahanzeb’s family refused to talk to AI researchers, “saying only that it was ‘dangerous’ for them to speak publicly about his death.” (8)

In the widely publicized case of the Adiala 11, the military denied any knowledge of the men’s detention for the first three years of their imprisonment. When pressure was brought to bear, it was revealed that four of the eleven had already died in custody. The seven surviving members were produced before the Supreme Court “in a visibly poor physical state.” (9) Despite their appearance before the chief justice, and the ad hoc nature of the charges against them (the lawyer for the Ministry of Defense admitted the spuriousness of the military’s prior justification, and invoked instead the AACPR), the men remain in the military’s hands to this day.

All told, one has to credit the AI researchers for being uncompromising in their denunciation of army abuses. This has always been the honest liberal’s central virtue: unremitting defense of everyone’s right to have rights. AI should be commended for letting their principles lead them where they might–in this case, to the door of the Pakistani Army.

Of course, the approach also has its obvious weaknesses. The report’s orienting framework illustrates the anti-politics of the human rights enterprise. For all the talk of law and rights, the enduring truth hasn’t changed: the powerful don’t respect the law until they are compelled to do so by something other than the law itself. Marx’s well-known aphorism captures a corollary: “between equal rights, force decides.”

Consider the report’s recommendations to the Taliban. AI, rightly, condemns the actions of the various groups that fall under that label. The attempted assassination of Malala Yousufzai only confirms a toxic ideology and strategy for which progressives can have no sympathy.

Diligently, AI advises that the Taliban “respect human rights and international humanitarian law,” and punish those within their ranks who perpetrate human rights abuses. Here, of course, the good citizen guffaws. How outrageous that AI expects militants to recognize claims made in a language for which they have no respect, by an institution whose authority they have never recognized?

One suspects that AI’s researchers themselves sense this. Thirty-one of the report’s 36 recommendations are directed towards the Pakistani authorities. It seems widely understood that, if the Taliban are ever to respect the rights of those they seek to rule, it will only be from a position of severe weakness. They must be defeated into submission.

But what human rights activism has never quite assimilated is that exactly the same is true of states. Rights that the Pakistani state grants on paper have only ever been as secure as the movements that stand up to demand them. Article 3 of the Pakistani constitution guarantees the elimination of all forms of exploitation, and progress towards distribution by the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” This promise was, unarguably, a consequence of the extraordinary popular mobilizations that both led to, and were spurred by, the collapse of General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship. Yet, 39 years after its drafting, each day, tens of millions of men, women, and children toil for sub-poverty wages. While there are laws on paper, it required a seventeen-day strike by tens of thousands of power-loom workers in summer 2010 before their employers actually acknowledged that Pakistani labor law requires that workers receive social security cards with the promise of an employer-funded pension.

In many ways, the human rights enterprise mirrors Gandhi at his most impotent. Stripped down, the operative ambition is to shame the powerful into shunning power. In this case, the Pakistani state is being asked (for shame!) to respect promises it has made on paper. To paraphrase the abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, power answers only to struggle. Without a strategy that hits them where it hurts—that imposes real costs on the ambitions of state managers and the elite on whom they depend—AI is doing little more than shouting into the dark.

The real tragedy in the northwest, thus, reduces to these facts. Progressives are light-years away from having the political capacity to impose real costs on the triumvirate that today determine the fate of the region’s population—the US, Pakistan, and the Taliban. It’s not, for instance, antiwar protests or eloquent missives on the program’s illegality, that have led to lulls in drone operations. These have been the consequence of crises in interstate relations. Drone attacks paused while CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, was in custody in early 2011 after killing two Pakistanis on Lahore’s streets. Attacks also momentarily stopped after the murder of dozens of Pakistani troops in a US airstrike in November 2011.

The left confronts the unenviable burden of fashioning itself into a force of rival consequence, if we are to win the world we all want to see. In the meantime, the task is far more modest—to build on recent victories and thereby, incrementally, increase our local influence.

A few, frantically citing the urgency of the threats posed by the Taliban, have mistakenly sought shortcuts through support for the state’s offensives or drone strikes. The principal virtue of the AI report is to confirm, yet again, that this strategy is coherent only to the extent that its orienting indictment whitewashes the state’s retrograde agenda. For the rest of us, the path is difficult and success uncertain—but it has never been otherwise.


4. p. 39

5. p. 25

6. p. 20

7. p. 15

8. p. 17

9. p. 29

Adaner Usmani is a graduate student in sociology at NYU. His dissertation examines variation in labor movement strength across late developers. 

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3 Responses to Abuses on the Path to Salvation

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