In its recently published commentary, “BBC’s Report on Human rights violations in Pakistan accentuates shortcomings of Reports by OHCHR”, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) comments on the detailed investigative report of M. Ilyas Khan on human rights violations in Pakistan that appeared on BBC News on 2 June. According to EFSAS, it is a brave attempt to expose what international institutions mandated with human rights, most notably the United Nations Human Rights Council, have shied away from doing. While the report specifically underlined the human rights abuses blatantly and excessively high-handedly perpetrated by the Pakistani State against the Pashtun ethnic group in western Pakistan, it was also a chilling reminder that the problem of human rights violations had reached pandemic proportions in the country. No ethnic group other than the dominant Punjabi has been spared by the Pakistani State, specifically its all-pervasive military establishment. Unlawful detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings of critics of the government and innocent civilians alike have become the norm rather than the exception in Pakistan.
EFSAS explains how Ilyas Khan traced the atrocities committed by the Pakistani military establishment against the Pashtuns to the flight of the Taliban and other militants from Afghanistan to Pakistan following the entry of the United States into Afghanistan in October 2001. Local human rights activists estimate that over 8,000 people picked up by the Army since 2002 remain unaccounted for.
Furthermore, EFSAS deliberates on how the scale of the violations against the Pashtuns, with an estimated 50,000 killings since 2001, forced a section of the ethnic group to form a new rights campaign, called the PTM, last year. In its short existence, the PTM has succeeded in rattling the might of the Pakistani military establishment by fearlessly publicizing human rights abuses in the tribal regions of north-west Pakistan, home to a majority of the Pashtuns in the country.
In addition, EFSAS describes that by being threatened by the PTM’s exposure of the devious role that the military establishment has played against the Pashtuns, the establishment responded in the manner that it knows best. It declared outright war against the organization, with Major General Asif Ghafoor, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations, thundering on 29 April that “Their time is up”. This was followed up on 26 May by the Army opening fire on a large group of PTM protesters in North Waziristan, killing 13 of them. Also, the fact that Ilyas Khan had conscientiously sought comments from Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as the ISPR on the findings of his investigation. While Imran Khan chose not to respond, the ISPR termed the findings “highly judgmental”.
The irony of the situation is that the BBC team that researched M. Ilyas Khan’s report obviously had to take considerable risks while doing so. They nevertheless had the courage and conviction to actually carry out the required investigations to produce an unbiased, and therefore meaningful, report. On the other hand, political parties and NGOs based in Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, taking great personal risks while doing so, actually visit the UNHRC at each of its sessions to reveal their accounts of torture and humiliation, atrocities and killings, which the OHCHR did not even deem important or relevant enough to include in its first ever report on Jammu & Kashmir. Had it done so, it would certainly have been able to better “assess the human rights situation there”. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the report came across as partial, biased, and in reality, quite unwarranted.
Yet, as illustrated by EFSAS, the challenges presented by the military State in Pakistan in terms of restricting access and intimidation must necessarily be overcome if the OHCHR actually wishes to fulfill what it is mandated to do – dispassionately protect and promote human rights.