Saturday, June 30, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial June 30, 2018

Pak-Afghan-US relations

Advice on relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and between Pakistan and the US has arrived from three different sources at the same time, with remarkable convergence as to the conclusions. First, a Pak-Afghan Track-II initiative called the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Committee (PAJC), Beyond Boundaries, met in Kabul on June 25, 2018, having previously had two rounds, one in Kabul on December 15, 2017 and one in Islamabad on February 26, 2018. PAJC welcomed the commitment by Pakistan and Afghanistan to end their mutual blame game and advised both sides to restrain their spokespersons from knee-jerk reactions to events. PAJC found the recent Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) promising and capable of providing the basis for a rapprochement between the two countries. PAJC asked both governments to sign a bilateral consular agreement, work on a dignified, reasonable plan for Afghan refugees’ repatriation, hold meetings to improve trade, both transit and bilateral, address negative perceptions of the other, hold media exchanges and highlight progress under APAPPS. On the other hand, a Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) seminar in Islamabad on the same day advised Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US to bridge their trust deficit in order to bring peace to Afghanistan, a desirable goal no one country could accomplish on its own. The seminar posited a region-led, region-owned peace process, which appeared one step ahead of Pakistan’s formulation of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation effort. The seminar, while recognising Pakistan’s crucial role in this process, emphasized a sustained western engagement in Afghanistan. Other participants argued Pakistan should be engaged constructively while being treated as a sovereign state. Peace and stability in Pakistan, it was pointed out, was dependent on peace and stability in Afghanistan. The seminar concluded its deliberations by arguing for economic interdependence between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in which mega projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia electricity project were important. The SDPI seminar also called for trade enhancement and facilitation between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The third contribution to the debate comes from an Institute for Policy Reforms (IPR) report that argues that despite their differences and recent tensions over Afghanistan, the Pak-US relationship cannot end. Both sides need to understand each other’s perceptions and interests. The report says both Pakistan and the US want peace in Afghanistan but differ on methods and goals. Concerned about Indian influence, Pakistan wants a ‘friendly’ government in Kabul while the US favoured a military solution over reconciliation (though the latter may be changing now). IPR advises Pakistan to stay engaged with the US, regain trust without necessarily yielding to all demands, state clearly what is possible, what is not, without waiting for US pressure to respond. Pakistan should offer sincere cooperation but make it equally contingent on US accommodation of Pakistan’s security concerns. The US on the other hand must help stop cross-border Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacks. While Pakistan cannot control all Afghan Taliban acts, it should pledge to restrain them from our borders while nudging them towards reconciliation. The report points out that an Afghan Taliban government in Kabul is not acceptable to most Afghans, the US, China and Russia. Pakistan must help negotiations with the Afghan Taliban while extracting assurances from Kabul of effective border controls and degrading the TTP. The report notes that the recent killing of Mullah Fazlullah, the chief of the TTP, was viewed positively by Pakistan.

All three sources argue for cooperation based on trust between the stakeholders in the Afghan conflict. While the logic of thus paving the road to peace and reconciliation is unassailable, the fly in the ointment remains the intransigence of the Afghan Taliban. On the same day as these sources produced their remarkably congruent advice, the Afghan Taliban refused to respond to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s extension by another 10 days of the (imperfect) ceasefire over Eid by extending their own ceasefire. On the contrary they painted the ceasefire initiative as an attempt to persuade them to lay down their arms and accept the regime in Kabul imposed by the US-led west. This shows that however much the three sources speak eminent sense, the road to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan remains a long and bumpy one.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial June 29, 2018

NAB’s new-found zeal

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) seems in recent days to have had a fire lit under it by its Chairman former Justice Javed Iqbal. Not only are accountability inquiries and cases being pursued with fresh zeal and vigour, this spurt of energy by the accountability czar has raised eyebrows regarding its impact on the general elections, now less than a month away. In principle, there can be no quarrel with Justice Iqbal’s notion of across the board accountability irrespective of the status of the accused nor with his contention that NAB’s work has nothing to do with the impending polls. But an experienced former Supreme Court judge cannot be unaware of the misgivings increasingly being voiced about the renewed vigour and speed of NAB regarding accountability cases so close to the elections. Reports speak of NAB tightening the noose around the Sharifs before the polls (although others too are receiving similar attention). Now Justice Iqbal has approved initiating a process to bring back former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s sons Hasan and Hussain, former finance minister Ishaq Dar and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif’s son-in-law Ali Imran Yousaf from London through Interpol. Others on this extradition list include former Ehtesab Bureau chief Saifur Rehman and even Nawaz Sharif himself. Former secretary to the prime minister Fawad Hassan Fawad is to be placed on the Exit Control List. Qamarul Islam of the Saaf Pani Company and PML-N nominated candidate against estranged Chaudhry Nisar in NA-59 (Rawalpindi) has been arrested by NAB one day after he was awarded the ticket. Khwaja Saad Rafique is to be questioned regarding the Paragon Housing Society. Hamza Shahbaz and Zaeem Qadri (despite ‘revolting’ against the PML-N) are also under the NAB cosh. Supporters of the PML-N may have some justification for arguing that all this represents (wittingly or unwittingly) a pattern of doing down the PML-N just before the elections. This perception may be growing outside PML-N circles too. Perhaps the NAB zealots do not realize that these actions so close to the polls, whether intended to damage the PML-N’s electoral prospects or not, may end up increasing the sympathy vote for the perceived ‘victims’. This is not to declare at this point their innocence or guilt, simply to point out the political fallout of what can be considered unfortunate timing. Lest the impression is created that NAB’s attention is focused only on PML-N, it should be pointed out that PTI’s Aleem Khan and PML-Q’s Moonis Elahi, amongst others, are also on NAB’s radar in different cases. However, the preponderance of attention to PML-N worthies raises suspicions in the public mind about a manipulation of the elections.
Hussain Nawaz has shrugged off the NAB extradition plan, arguing that since they have not broken any British law, the extradition is unlikely to find traction. Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has weighed in with the conclusion that Nawaz Sharif will not get justice from NAB. Nawaz Sharif himself has taken time from attending to his ailing wife in London to say that rigged polls will harm Pakistan. With so much uncertainty and conspiracy theories swirling over the elections, the last thing the country needs at this juncture is a suddenly fired up, overzealous NAB queering the pitch further, whether as a coincidence or a well thought out strategy on anyone’s behest or otherwise. Whatever be the truth of the matter, the timing of NAB’s new found zeal to pursue accountability cases literally on the eve of the polls has given rise to, and is likely to exacerbate, concerns about the credibility, fair and free nature of the elections and engendered new worries about what may follow if the polls prove controversial or even unacceptable to any party or parties in the fray. No one is against accountability (although it leaves out very powerful state institutions), but it must not be aimed at, or even be seen to be aimed at engineering a desired outcome for the coming elections.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Business Recorder Column June 26, 2018

Missing persons still missing

Rashed Rahman

In line with the judicial activism that has become the hallmark of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar, and which has elevated him in the eyes of the victims of the ‘system’ to the role of a saviour, his recent visits to Sukkur, Larkana and Hyderabad yielded a chorus of cries from the tortured families of missing persons for redress and justice. The CJP then summoned the IG Sindh, DG Rangers Sindh, provincial heads of ISI, MI and IB to the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) Karachi Registry on Sunday, June 24, 2018 on the issue.
The scenes outside and inside the court were as unprecedented as they were heart rending. The families of about 50 missing persons had gathered outside the SC’s Karachi Registry with posters, banners and photographs of their missing loved ones. According to human rights activist Jibran Nasir, the families were held back by a security cordon. Only one member from each family was being allowed into the hallowed halls of the SC’s Karachi Registry. He tweeted that the commotion was because the young could not leave the old outside in the sun and the old needed the support of their young ones inside.
Even inside the court there were rowdy scenes and near clashes between the protestors and the security forces. When things really started getting out of hand, the CJP left the courtroom for his chambers. However, he did return, admonished the protestors for their unprecedented bad behaviour before the apex court, including a woman almost indicted for contempt (but then mercifully forgiven) for thumping the CJP’s rostrum. Unacceptable as such rowdiness is in any court, let alone the SC, it is not difficult to sympathise with the plight of these families. After all for years they have knocked on virtually every door for news of and the safe release or charging under due process of their missing loved ones. The lack of information about the missing, even whether they are still alive or dead, is nothing but cruel torture for their families stretching back over many years.
The CJP did well to overcome the natural umbrage of the court at such behaviour, forgive the perpetrators and order the setting up of a special cell to provide information to the families of the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. Positive as this step is, there is room for sckepticism as to its effectiveness, based on the track record of enforced disappearances and their aftermath. Having exhausted, and been exhausted by, the perennial running from pillar to post amongst the courts, the Commission on Enforced Disappearances and the like, there was reflected in this behaviour the desperation of poor souls besides themselves with grief and agony. No writs of habeas corpus, petitions to the courts (all the way up to the High Courts and even the SC), or applications to the Commission on Enforced Disappearances have yielded any meaningful results. This is because all these august bodies have failed to penetrate the cloak of secrecy and impunity in which the security and intelligence services have wrapped themselves for years. When a security or intelligence official in the face of the courts or the Commission blatantly denies any knowledge of the whereabouts of a missing person, none of these institutions have any means to challenge through independent investigations such denials. The ‘disappeared’ therefore seldom ‘appear’.
The CJP asked for and accepted the applications of the protesting families vis-a-vis their missing loved ones. What will come out of them is unknown but there is considerable room for scepticism given the impunity of the alleged perpetrators of enforced disappearances and the helplessness of state institutions charged with ensuring adherence to the rule of law in the face of this blanket, blatant denial. Very few cases have emerged over the years (perhaps because of some anomaly rather than a change of heart of the tormentors) of missing persons actually being traced to the secret detention centres run by the security forces. Even then, not many of these have returned to their homes and families. Those few who have dare not speak about their ordeal for fear of reprisals against them and their families.
Since 2002, when the current nationalist insurgency first broke out in Balochistan, reports of enforced disappearances starting emerging. It was perhaps the very impunity enjoyed by the security forces and demonstrated in practice that not only allowed these illegal and inhuman methods to continue, but incrementally emboldened the perpetrators because the response from the polity and civil society was so weak. Mama Qadeer’s long march from Quetta to Islamabad for missing persons was almost completely ignored by the political parties (with the exception of one or two Left parties) and civil society. There was not even a whimper of protest when the ISI had a roundtable discussion on missing persons in Balochistan cancelled by pressurising the LUMS management.
Since we did not speak up when the Baloch were being targeted through enforced disappearances, it became that much more difficult to voice protest when reports started incrementally pouring in of similar methods being employed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Punjab. We can now rightfully claim to be ‘united’ as a country in this affliction.
Human rights defenders, the mainstream media and the social media have all gone through the cycle since the last 16 years of intimidation, threats and ‘silencing’. It appears the powers-that-be can no longer abide even just dissidence or criticism. We are simply asked to lump it. When five bloggers were ‘disappeared’ in 2007, their reappearance after months produced a sigh of relief. When they refused to speak (for obvious reasons) and thought it better for safety of life and limb to flee abroad with their immediate families, we became complacent that the problem was over. Now there are reports that the old and helpless parents of one of those bloggers have been threatened with dire consequences if they do not persuade their son abroad to stop his activities on social media. Gul Bokhari was whisked away from a Lahore Cantonment check post, held for five hours, but mercifully released apparently unharmed. But harm can be of many kinds. She is now incommunicado except for a brief message soon after her release thanking people for their support and asking for respect for her ‘privacy’ (read ‘silence’).
While CJP Saqib Nisar is to be appreciated for taking notice of the wails and tears of these suffering families, perhaps one should point out to His Lordship the scale of the problem. In Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thousands are missing. In Sindh, it in the hundreds and mounting (on the very day the CJP held the hearing in Karachi, two Sindh Taraqqi Pasand workers were whisked away from outside a courthouse hearing in Mirpurkhas). Punjab has suffered a handful, but unless the most powerful province adopts a vow of silence on such matters, this too is likely to increase, given the ease and facility with which the regime of enforced disappearances has been imposed. The Commission under Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal proved as toothless as the rest. Now that the Justice has his hands full with NAB, it is unlikely the Commission will receive even the cursory attention paid to its task hitherto.
As we speak, the protest camp for missing persons outside the Quetta Press Club has by now assumed a permanent character. On June 24, 2018 (the day of the SC hearing), a seven-day hunger strike began outside the Hyderabad Press Club by the Voice for Missing Persons of Sindh.
Effective or not, the voices of the families and the platforms that have emerged to support them can still be faintly heard on the margins. Unless all of good conscience add their voices to this tragic refrain, the fear is that all our voices will eventually be made to ‘disappear’.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial June 26, 2018

A ‘democracy’ of the rich and powerful

Since the Supreme Court (SC) ordered aspiring candidates in the elections to attach an affidavit to their nomination papers showing details of their assets and wealth to overcome the deletion of these details by the Elections Act 2017, a treasure trove of information has come tumbling out. The common characteristic of the wealth details of the leading lights of the political parties reflects the power structure of our system. None of the leaders and prominent candidates of any of the parties has wealth below the millions, some in the billions. The reluctance of the political class therefore in seeking to camouflage or rather withhold this information in their nomination papers through the Elections Act 2017 now makes sense. An astounding series of revelations in the media about the net worth of our political leaders and prominent candidates reads like a Who’s Who of the dominant elite of our society. In days gone by, such wealth was seen (but not revealed) only amongst the feudal landowning elite. Over the years, they have been joined by the capitalist politicos, some having bridged the divide between traditional large landholdings and wealth of more recent origins in the modern sectors of the economy domestically and abroad. To take but a few examples to illustrate the phenomenon, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s wealth and assets reflect the fact  that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He reportedly has more assets in the UAE, where he spent many childhood years when his mother the late Benazir Bhutto was in exile, than in Pakistan. At home he is not only privileged to have inherited property from his mother, but has diversified investments abroad. His father, Asif Ali Zardari, and his aunt, Faryal Talpur too have similar portfolios of wealth and assets. Lest anyone think only the PPP leadership falls in this category, all the leaders of all the political parties do not come out in the assets race as less than millionaires and billionaires.

Imran Khan has been at pains to explain to his disgruntled PTI workers that ‘electables’ are essential if the party is to win in the upcoming polls. These electables are people of enormous material means. It is no surprise therefore that the amount spent by them on their election campaigns beggars the imagination. The sheer weight of this spending leaves rivals of more modest origins at a clear disadvantage. Is it any surprise then that our parliaments are packed with the rich, powerful and influential sections of our society? Where does this leave the ordinary citizen and voter on the touchstone of a genuine democracy? The voter is treated as little better than electoral fodder, to be wooed when polls are imminent and forgotten soon after until the next elections (Jamal Leghari had a taste of voter push back the other day on this very neglect when he visited his constituency). The ordinary citizen cannot even dream of running in elections that require huge sums of money to make a dent. While democracy in our country still carries a legacy of flaws and weaknesses, this wealth ‘gate’ that keeps the citizens and masses deprived of the right of representation from within their ranks describes even the flawed democracy we have and which is still struggling to consolidate itself 70 years after the country gained independence as the forte of the rich and powerful. Of course this political class hopes to recoup some if not all of its spending in winning elections through the perks and privileges (and opportunities) provided by our political system. Corruption and bending the rules to derive undue advantage is inherent in this construct. Until the ordinary citizen and the masses experience a change in this power structure erected in their face and against any opportunities for them to enter the portals of power and voice the aspirations of the people, the hypocrisy of the wealthy promising the moon to the poor but delivering little except the crumbs of patronage for purely electoral considerations again will not change, making it difficult to characterize our hybrid system as democratic.

Business Recorder Editorial June 24, 2018

‘Threat’ to data security

An unseemly row has broken out between the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) over the alleged ‘leak’ of electoral rolls data from the latter. To add fuel to the fire, PTI has accused the NADRA Chairman, Usman Yusuf Mobeen, of being a PML-N appointee who has ‘leaked’ voter information to the former ruling party to give it advantage in the general elections. However, the picture is cloudy because of contradictory reports, not the least of which reveals divisions within the ECP itself over the issue. The perceived threat to the security of electoral rolls stems from the sharing of age- and religion-wise voters’ statistics. Reports speak of the ECP having written a letter on May 29, 2018 to NADRA expressing its great concern regarding media reports that insiders have provided the information in question to outsiders even before the ECP, a clear breach, the ECP argues, of the confidentiality clauses of the contract between the ECP and NADRA of June 2011. The ECP as a result fears for the credibility of both NADRA and the ECP as custodians of the electoral rolls. The ECP did clarify however that the letter had nothing to do with the PTI allegation since neither the ECP had received any communication from the PTI in this regard nor did it therefore act on that basis. To make confusion worse confounded while waiting for NADRA’s response to the ECP letter, it seems there is little clarity about the law and rules surrounding the subject. For one, the ECP had provided information about voters’ age- and religion-wise statistics on its website before the 2013 elections without any complaint from any quarter and shared an update with media itself just two months ago. But by now it seems the pitch has been queered by the Elections Act 2017, whose Section 79(3) is interpreted by some observers as restricting access to any such data to formal applicants who have to pay a prescribed fee for the information, while others say this is only required for court cases, not otherwise. NADRA too is obliged under the Freedom of Information Act to share with any individual CNIC holders’ data showing gender, age and religion as well as electoral rolls. Meanwhile a NADRA spokesman has denied it had leaked any electoral rolls data to any political party and rejected the allegation of rigging against it as baseless. He pointed out that NADRA had a limited role in the elections of only providing technical assistance to the ECP.

Whatever the truth of the matter, which needs the ECP and NADRA to put their heads together and clarify the situation, the brouhaha created by the controversy reflects the heightened tensions and atmosphere of suspicion, not just amongst the rival political parties, but even against state institutions being accused of partisan political bias, illegal help to one or another political party, etc. At the back of everyone’s mind is probably the ongoing and not yet settled controversy about Russian hacking being used to influence the US presidential election in 2017. In our case, hacking is not the issue, rather sharing information about voters and their profile is. First and foremost, it needs to be clarified what, if anything, can be publicly shared regarding voters’ profile statistics and in what manner. Second, some light needs to be shed on what, if anything, any interested party can hope to gain from such information. The matter should be settled without paranoia or hysteria, and certainly free of any obvious or not so obvious political bias. Such controversies on the eve of the July 25, 2018 polls can only add to the clouds of uncertainty and questions of credibility already lowering above the polity’s head regarding the transparency and free and fair character of these elections. The sooner the controversy is cleared up and laid to rest, the better.