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HRCP lists dangers in Malakand

LAHORE: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is “convinced the cost of the insurgency in the Malakand division has been increased manifold by the hortsightedness and indecisiveness of the non-representative institutions and their policy of appeasing the militants and ‘cohorting’ with them”.

A detailed statement, “IDPs and the outcome of military actions” issued by HRCP Chairperson Asma Jahangir on Wednesday says: “While the ongoing military operation had become unavoidable, it was not adopted as a measure of the last resort.” The statement also strongly criticises the “methods of evacuation and the arrangements for the stranded people”.

“For over two decades the government of Pakistan, in particular the military, tolerated, if it did not collude with the religious militants and extended impunity to them as well as to all forms of acts of religious intolerance,” the statement says. It notes that neither the federal nor the provincial government could explain the short-term and long-term objectives of the military operation. “The federal government is solely concentrated on fund raising and has so far not looked ahead.” The commission points out that holding the areas that are cleared of the Taliban till civil administration is put in place is crucial.

The HRCP says the government “has never given a satisfactory explanation on the supply lines of finances, vehicles, arms/ammunition and petrol that the militants have never been short of. This is particularly questionable in the case of Swat, which is a settled area and surrounded by territory in control of the government.”

The commission speaks skeptically of “government machinery (that) lacked the will rather than capacity to dismantle the militant force in the Malakand division.” According to the commission, the IDPs and their interlocutors are even less sure of the capacity of the government to deal with the enormous challenge in FATA.

The commission quotes IDPs to highlight the “devious role played by Syed Muhammad Javed, former commissioner of Malakand and an ex-DCO of Swat. “It is reported that there was vigorous recruitment of local people by the militants during Syed Javed’s term. There are other allegations of abuse of human rights by the former commissioner”. The statement also reconfirms that local residents decry militants as being motivated by a desire for power. “Their past record offered strong evidence against their interest in justice… The Nizam-i-Adl Regulation was to be used as a tool to keep the local population in a state of fear while power would be wielded through Taliban appointed judges and law enforcement personnel.”

The commission recalls that some 95,953 families (577,167 people) were already internally displaced in the NWFP/Pakhtoonkhwa province before the May 2009 military operation commenced, and a large number of them were from Swat where the Taliban were virtually in control. “It was pretty evident that the people felt themselves insecure and wanted peace — at any cost.”

Still, HRCP says “the intensity of a full-fledged military operation could have been avoided if the militants had been confronted, discouraged, deported and captured earlier.”

The commission doesn’t discount the urgency of the military action but adds that “any armed action by the state must, under all circumstances, follow the principles of humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions. “It must be a measure of last resort rather than a measure that becomes unavoidable because of sustained inaction in the past. Use of force must be proportionate and non-combatants should, at all costs, be assured of safety. Those trapped in the cross fighting should be provided with food and all efforts made to bring them to safety.”

The statement quotes IDPs as confirming (to HRCP) that “the use of long range artillery by the military was indiscriminate. Besides militants, civilians too became targets of bombardment…fatalities and casualties amongst civilians are significant. The infrastructure has also been massively damaged by government forces as well as the Taliban.”

According to UNHCR, the affected area has over six million population. The estimates of the people displaced have risen to nearly three million. This, HRCP notes, is a strong indication that large numbers are either trapped or missing.

By May 24, the total number of IDPs estimated at 1,783,380 and some 80 per cent of them had taken shelter with local host families or in rented accommodation, the statement says. “As the number of IDPs keeps increasing, the capacities of host families and communities are being overstretched…The task of organising IDP camps is gigantic but even more difficult it is for host families to sustain their hospitality beyond a certain period.” Had the citizens not acted in a prompt and generous way protection for the IDPs would have become virtually impossible, the commission points out.

The commission gives credit to foreign agencies like UNHCR, ICRC and UNICEF for having foreseen such an eventuality before it censures the government, federal as well as the provincial: “(The government) was totally at a loss in the first few weeks. The provincial government is beginning to stir but the federal government remains clueless and has no forward looking strategy.”

The IDP camps are by no means perfect, observes the commission whose monitors have seen red carpets rolled out there and huge tents with public address system being set up for a visiting VVIP. The commission’s report says there are serious concerns regarding security; there is no checking on arms inside the camps and the IDPs say that some low level Taliban had also taken refuge in the camps.

The report paints a grim picture of the camps: There is a dearth of all kinds of essential commodities. Medical facilities are inadequate and heat is a major problem. The registration system is very slow and cumbersome. It is especially difficult for IDPs living outside the camp facilities to secure registration. The IDPs have no facilities to cook or grind the wheat they got from the donors and they are nervous because they have no access to news on a regular basis.

HRCP is also “especially concerned that the IDPs have been virtually barred from entering Sindh”. Even “in Punjab they are not being registered but are not barred, the report says. “The Federal government has announced that all rental deeds must be executed in police stations so that the police can ‘keep an eye’ on the IDPs from leaving NWFP/Pakhtoonkhwa. The Punjab government has issued instructions that property cannot be sold to anyone from outside the province without a no-objection certificate. This is demoralising for IDPs who are the worst victims of the Taliban’s wrath and the government’s utterly indefensible policies.”

The report quotes journalists, particularly of electronic media, as telling HRCP of the heavy censorship on news. “There can be no discussion on the number of civilian fatalities or casualties. Independent media and international or national humanitarian groups have no access to the conflict area…Telephone lines are disconnected, therefore those trapped or who stayed back cannot reach anyone when in distress.”

HRCP notes “the challenge faced by the country goes beyond Swat and the effects of Talibanisation are not confined to the NWFP/Pakhtoonkhwa province alone.” It describes bomb blasts, threats and rise in crime across the entire country as “a major fallout of Talibanisation and the fighting” and links the present situation to the policies followed by the regimes of generals Zia and Musharraf: “Over the years, Pakistani jehadi groups have formed a network of supporters that are entrenched in all institutions of the country. Their close links to foreign militant groups have put more resources at their disposal and they now operate in a strategic way.

Pakistan’s government has to draw a comprehensive policy — taking the military and other political parties on board — so that a long-term strategy is developed to confront the forces of militancy and intolerance. The government should seek partnership with international entities and other countries to effectively challenge militant groups and their supporters.”HRCP demands a whitepaper on the official patronage extended to the militants in the Malakand division and calls for holding government officials to account. It is disturbed that no proper count of civilian casualties during the Swat operation has been issued. “They appear to be significantly higher than the figures mentioned by the ISPR,” the statement says.

Some of the other suggestions made by the commission are: Efficient information centres be set up at all camps and effective procedures for the search and recovery of separated or missing members of the displaced families.

* Ways should be found to establish communications with the people stranded in their towns and villages to ensure supply of food to them and to guarantee their safety.

* The large population of displaced people outside the camps should immediately be brought within the support network so that they are not driven by circumstances to rush towards the camps where resources are already stretched and the threat of adverse weather looms large.

* The policy of censoring reports about the military operation and its impact on the citizens’ life and matters is manifestly counter-productive. The people will better face the situation if they are taken into confidence and trusted with the truth.

* The authorities must have a sound exit strategy: How the civilian administration will be restored once the operation is over? Who will guarantee the people’s security and how? Who will ensure that the law enforcement staff is adequately trained and equipped?

* The government must develop a well considered plan as to how Fata and the Malakand division will be administered after peace is restored. In particular, it is necessary to decide what kind of judicial system will be followed in these territories and what arrangements will be needed to protect women, children and the minorities that have borne the brunt of the militants’ atrocities.

Source: Dawn

Date:6/4/2009

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