Obscuring Empire

Jan 2013

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The report observes that in the “vacuum of authority” in FATA, the “USA has also carried out a program of so-called ‘targeted killings’ by pilotless drone aircraft that raises human rights concerns.” This is the only line in the 68-page report that refers to America. It’s as if, “legal wilderness” and the “vacuum of authority” in FATA cause drone attacks rather than American interests and American brutishness. Indeed, where the insurgency in FATA, as it now exists, is concerned, it began as a result of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and its subsequent prosecution of the ‘war on terror.’ But, for Amnesty, the causal arrow is reversed: it is a vacuum of authority—and not the insurgency that sprouted up in this particular form after America’s invasion—that somehow enables America to drone people in FATA.

Amnesty’s approach seeks to surgically extract the conflict in Pakistan from its broader geopolitical context: There is Pakistan. In Pakistan, there is FATA. In FATA, there is an insurgency. In the insurgency, the Taliban and militant groups are on one side, the Pakistani Army is on the other—and America makes a special guest appearance. In this isolated conflict, Amnesty unrolls a checklist of human rights and sees which ones are being violated: “legal framework,” check; “deaths in custody, extra-judicial executions,” check; “torture,” check; “enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention,” check.

But the Pakistani Army’s operations in FATA simply cannot be seen in isolation from the actions of the United States and from the war in Afghanistan, nor can they be seen in isolation from the history of American and other colonial interventions in the region.

The issue here is not only an insurgency somewhere in the remote areas of Pakistan, or the violations of human rights here and there that we can point to, isolate under a microscope, and zap away using a precision laser (or drone strike). The issue is the way in which the United States exercises its power on a global scale to preserve and further its interests. The problem is imperialism, which is not just a policy, but a system of global political economy and geopolitics.

That is, imperialism is a “key driver” of human rights violations.

Although Amnesty International, claims not to adhere to any political ideology, it has supported NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan—because it is supposedly good for women.

Of course, Pakistan’s rulers—military and civilian alike—have been violating human rights throughout Pakistan since the British left in 1947. In fact, they were doing it long before the British left. By labeling the tribal areas a place of “wilderness” Amnesty plays into stereotypical notions and the myth that the Pakistani Army and government are involved in some kind of civilizing or uplifting mission—not very different, one supposes, from America’s civilizing mission in Afghanistan.

Yet, Pakistan’s ruling classes have always been rapacious and extractive, looking to impose by force and coercion their rule when and where they are unable to persuade—in FATA, but also in Balochistan, Sindh, and wherever subordinated groups have opposed the rulers. This is not to argue that the Taliban represent a liberation movement, but that there are clearly a whole host of grievances and structural problems that make people throughout Pakistan angry and that will fuel insurgency and anger.

The question for those who truly care about human rights violations is about understanding the causes and contexts in which those violations exist. This must involve an analysis of imperialism and the ways in which it collaborates with local ruling classes. We must also look at the imperatives of ruling classes and what it means that they turn to violence time and again instead of actually addressing political, economic and social problems.

What we need is revolutionary analysis that points to the problem and revolutionary strategy that helps people understand how to solve it. We need less of the kind of  human rights discourse that ultimately serves the interests of imperialism by trying to convince everybody that the devil does not exist.

Akram Javed has written for various publications including Viewpoint Online and The Platform. He can be reached at surkh.musafir@gmail.com.

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