Malik Siraj Akbar interviewed the Pakistan Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) about his Congressional testimony, the state of human rights in Balochistan and the killing of journalist Syed Saleem Shezad.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been actively highlighting human rights abuses in Pakistan in recent times. The organisation’s Pakistan Director Ali Dayan Hasan has attracted a lot of attention in the media during the past few months, due to his vocal stance on human rights violations in Balochistan and the murder of journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad.
A former senior editor at the Herald, a reputed Karachi-based current affairs magazine, Hasan was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Leverhulme Changing Character of War Programme at the University of Oxford. He has a bachelor’s degree from the London School of Economics and a master’s degree from St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He spoke exclusively to Dawn.com during his recent visit to the United States.
You recently participated in a controversial congressional hearing on Balochistan. Can you tell us what you spoke about at the hearing?
Our position is that all governments and influential actors must pressure each other to adhere to international human rights standards. It was in pursuance of this aim that we testified, hoping that our presence and intervention will highlight serious human rights abuses by all actors in Balochistan. We expect both the US and Pakistan to pressure each other to respect human rights and to follow respective relevant national and international laws that oblige rights protections.
We made it clear that Balochistan was an internationally recognised province of Pakistan and HRW expected Pakistan’s constitutional protections for citizens to apply to those who live in the province. HRW explained that while the state – through its army, intelligence agencies and paramilitaries such as the FC – was the “engine of abuse,” Balochistan presented a complex picture with multiple abusive actors. We detailed not just large-scale disappearances, targeted killings and other abuses by state authorities but also the killing of settlers by Baloch nationalists and the killing of Shias by Sunni extremists. HRW also emphasised that the US Congress must examine US complicity with former president Pervez Musharraf in effecting the disappearances of al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects, and how it allowed Musharraf to extend heinous practices such as disappearances to political opponents in Balochistan. We outlined the complex ethnic mix and demographics in Balochistan, emphasising that at least 40 per cent of Balochistan was, in fact, non-Baloch.
What was the significance of this hearing given the outrage it has generated in Pakistan’s political and military circles. How do you think the international community can help in influencing Islamabad to deal with the situation in Balochistan?
Let me clarify once again that Human Rights Watch holds no sympathy for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s eccentric political views. We even found the inclusion of some witnesses such as Ralph Peters – who has no known expertise on Balochistan and spouts bizarre political views – worrisome. However, we felt it was far more important that a balanced and nuanced human rights analysis, based in international law rather than political posturing, be placed on the record in the US Congress. Our colleagues at Amnesty International (AI) appeared to share that view and hence testified.
The fact is that international rights groups such as HRW and Amnesty, and in Pakistan, the highly respected, HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) have been sounding alarm bells about Balochistan for several years. HRW has produced countless press releases and two in-depth reports on abuses by all sides, but the abusers – particularly the army and its security agencies - have ignored these repeated appeals or responded with angry denials, and in fact, state abuses have worsened in Balochistan.
Countries are not made or broken through hearings or resolutions in the US Congress. That is only up to the people of a country, but least this hearing and Congressman Rohrabacher’s ill-advised resolution has forced Pakistan’s political and military leaders to pay attention to the human rights hell in Balochistan.
HRW expects the international community, acting strictly within the ambit of international law, to exert all possible pressure on Pakistan to end such abuses. And equally, Pakistan’s political parties and leaders must do their duty by finding political solutions to political disputes. If that requires uniting to confront the army and telling it that abuses in Balochistan must end, so be it.
In what ways is the human rights situation in Balochistan continuously deteriorating and why? What needs to be done to restore peace?
HRW has documented disappearances, which have continued despite the return to constitutional rule in 2008. The federal government, which in 2008 was willing to acknowledge large-scale disappearances, has been unable to prevent abuses by FC and intelligence agencies and has resorted to bare-faced denial.
In 2008, Interior minister Rehman Malik admitted 1100 people were missing. Today he claims that less than 50 are missing, which is nonsense. The on-ground research performed by HRW suggests that considerably more than 50 people have disappeared since 2008 alone. Further, HRW has documented some 300 killings of Baloch nationalists in the last 18 months in “kill-and-dump” operations. While the judiciary has repeatedly tried to address the issue of disappearances in Balochistan, its attempts have been less than successful in the face of intransigence by those perpetrating these abuses. This is a disaster and it requires politicians to confront the military, which is basically running security policy in Balochistan and tell it to end abuses. Period.
Political disputes can only be resolved through political measures and not through brutality and military might. Of course, this situation is complicated by Baloch nationalist attacks on non-Baloch settlers and HRW is the only international group to have documented those abuses in detail. It is a fact that Punjabi and Urdu-speakers are living in fear of their lives in Quetta today. Additionally, HRW has also documented the killings of some 300 Shias, mostly from the Hazara community since 2008. For the most part, militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have claimed responsibility for these attacks. Many in Balochistan believe that these extremist groups, which undoubtedly have enjoyed close strategic relationships with the army, continue to operate at its behest.
Do you think the government is responsible for this state of lawlessness and lack of accountability?
It is the responsibility of the state to enforce a rights-respecting rule of law and in that the federal and provincial governments have completely failed. Either it is time for them to seriously address that failure by confronting the security apparatus or to categorically say that they cannot control their own intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces.
It is simply untenable to say you want peace and be party to the torture, disappearance and killing of people at the same time. There can be no peace in Balochistan unless the army, the FC and the intelligence agencies are part of the process and are willing to change their ways. So, this requires both the leadership and pressure by the politicians that should be used on the one hand rein in the security forces and to bring Baloch nationalists to the table on the other. Unless both things happen concurrently and real confidence-building measures are put in place, offers of amnesty or of quashing cases against Baloch leaders will simply be seen as political honey-traps designed to lure Baloch nationalists back only for the state to turn its guns on them again.
The interior minister has said that foreign powers are involved in causing instability in Balochistan. Do you accept this?
In principle, HRW does not reject the possibility that third parties may also be perpetrating abuses in Balochistan. However, mere claims by the interior minister, the intelligence agencies or the government are not enough in the absence of evidence. If the government of Pakistan can provide tangible evidence of India, Afghanistan, the US or any other country’s involvement in human rights abuses in Balochistan, HRW would not hesitate to demand accountability of such parties. The fact is that there is basically no evidence on the record offered by Pakistani authorities to back up such claims.
How satisfied are you with the findings of the Saleem Shahzad murder inquiry commission?
HRW has made clear that it does not find the commission’s findings satisfactory as it failed to meet the terms of its mandate, which included the identification of the perpetrators. This is not to suggest that the commission may not have tried but the indisputable fact is that it failed.
HRW has never said that Saleem Shahzad was murdered by the ISI, but we have maintained two positions with reference to Saleem Shahzad’s murder. One, he was categorical that he was being repeatedly threatened by the ISI and we believe that prior to his murder he was in the custody of the ISI and the location, manner and method of his abduction bore the hallmark of similar incidents where the ISI and other intelligence agencies were the accused. Second, given the overwhelming circumstantial evidence around his abduction, the discovery of his body meant that the ISI was the principal suspect in that criminal investigation.
As the ‘Adyala 11’ case is demonstrating yet again, extreme violence by intelligence agencies of illegal abductees is commonplace. While the commission may have failed to hold the ISI accountable, it has raised serious concerns about the relationship between the ISI and journalists and documented allegations of harassment and intimidation by the ISI.
The sad fact is that to date, no intelligence personnel have ever been held accountable for the hundreds of such allegations that abound. HRW is deeply encouraged by the Supreme Court’s recent attempts to address this culture of impunity. It is our hope that the investigation will continue and the perpetrators of Shahzad’s murder, regardless of who they are, will be identified and held accountable.
Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) have condemned HRW for “falsely implicating” the ISI in Saleem Shahzad’s murder and asked your organisation to withdraw its statement. Their statement has also questioned the credibility of your organisation. How would you respond to the impression that the HRW is being used by the US government to defame the Pakistan army?
Frankly, I find the ISPR statement bewildering at multiple levels. First, HRW is an international human rights organisation headquartered in New York (as is the UN) but with offices across the world. We take no money from the US or any other government. Our work is funded by private donors and you can find a list of these on our website. HRW has a global reputation for integrity which has made it one of the largest human rights organisations in the world today.
Secondly, HRW has been one of the most strident critics of US abuses – particularly in the area of counter-terrorism and we have unequivocally called for senior members of the Bush administration to be held accountable for torture. We do not hesitate to hold any abusive actor to account including the Indian military. In fact, HRW is one of the leading voices calling for the repeal of the abusive Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that allows impunity for Indian military abuses in Kashmir and the insurgency-hit North East.
Third, HRW would be more than pleased to engage in a constructive, meaningful and transparent organisational dialogue with the army through ISPR or otherwise on areas of disagreement or mutual concern. However, we are perturbed by the Stalinist turn of phrase employed by ISPR in its public responses to HRW. Consider the last ISPR statement; in a Kafka-esque twist, it refers to Saleem Shahzad’s murder as an “alleged murder.”
The murder is a fact not an allegation. Bizarrely, it cites the ongoing Adiyala 11 case as proof that it is accountable to the Supreme Court. We hope that this turns out to be true but it remains to be seen whether the military will allow its personnel to be held accountable. It seeks to twist facts to suggest that HRW is part of a “sinister media campaign,” whereas HRW has been upfront and absolutely clear. The “sinister media campaign” is in fact being run by others acting in sympathy with a perceived “national interest” that argues that asking for people to not be tortured or killed is an attack on Pakistan.
HRW does not have any innate animosity towards the ISI or the Pakistan Army and in fact we are on record as saying that the initial, “active” phase of the Swat operation (Rah-e-Rast) was conducted with relatively few violations of international humanitarian law. Serious abuses such as extra-judicial killings only followed later in the “hold” phase. We highlight abuses and seek for those to end and have no hostility towards any state, government or military per se.
The ISPR have specifically mentioned you by name twice, as has a statement issued to the state-run news agency, by an anonymous spokesperson of the ISI after Saleem Shahzad’s body was discovered. Do you think this is justified or do you feel threatened?
I am very sorry that the military authorities are choosing to personalise what are organisational positions. I am a Pakistani who represents an internationally respected human rights organisation. It is my job to provide research-based critiques based in international human rights law, international humanitarian law and in light of the fundamental rights provisions of Pakistan’s constitution. I have done this job for almost a decade and persist in doing it because I care deeply about Pakistan and want my country to be a better place, not because I want to malign it. Like many Pakistanis, I too aspire for dignity for my country in the world and I, too, have relatives who have served in the armed forces.
Turning a blind eye to bigotry, prejudice and abuse is neither patriotic nor ethical. As a Pakistani, I look forward to the day I can tell the world with pride that Pakistan is a rights-respecting democracy that does not allow its law enforcement agencies or security forces to abuse people. I hope to see that day in my lifetime. Given this context, I hope ISPR will consider avoiding issuing statements that are easily read as threats. There is nothing as abhorrent as feeling threatened by those who are meant to actually keep you secure. Let us discuss and debate facts dispassionately without prejudice and in a manner which is not menacing.
What is HRW’s stance on drone strikes in Pakistan and how have citizens’ rights been violated?
HRW considers CIA drone strikes a deeply troubling issue that raises serious human rights concerns. Last year, the US carried out about 75 aerial drone strikes which resulted in claims of large numbers of civilian casualties. Lack of access to the conflict areas has prevented independent verification and HRW has repeatedly called on the Pakistan army, which controls access to the conflict zone to provide the same.
Little is known about who is killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and under what circumstances. HRW has stated categorically that this unaccountable free-for-all operation, whether with the covert support of Pakistani authorities or without, is unacceptable. Given that the US resists public accountability for CIA drone strikes, they should simply not be happening. The drone strikes should end.