The US and human rights
28 November, 2012
By Momin Iftikhar
Just days before elections to the UN Human Rights Council were held, the US Ambassador, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, harangued Pakistan at a meeting of HRC's Universal Period Review at Geneva by referring to military operations in the Balochistan province "aimed at silencing dissent." Donahoe lectured Pakistan to "ensure that those guilty of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings must be prosecuted."
Prominent by their absence were the expressions of any passing concerns about the human rights violations being committed in the Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) by India's forces operating under the unfettered freedom of action provided by the draconian laws, the atrocities committed by the US sponsored rebel groups in Libya and currently in Syria, or the human rights aspects of an unrestrained drone war in the north-western territories of Pakistan critically impinging upon the social and cultural fabric in Fata as well as its devastating impact on the hinterland.
Despite the US slandering campaign, Pakistan contested and won the election for one of the five seats allocated to the Asia-Pacific Group, securing the privilege to serve on the 47-member council from 2013 to 2015. While Pakistan sailed through the election, the US had a tough pool and an ingrained opposition to contend with. The conduct of the global war on terror comes with the burden of trampling over human rights considerations and it was a measure USA's maligned position that their diplomats were visibly nervous, as they campaigned and competed with Germany, Greece, Ireland and Sweden for three seats among 18 on the panel, decided by direct voting by the UN General Assembly.
At the end, the US managed to secure a seat. But it was manifest that the American moral authority stood eroded; their squeaky clean human rights image having undergone an unequivocal and, perhaps, irrevocably battered and blackened transformation.
The point is not lost on the Americans; candidate Obama had pointed out to the perils raked up by the USA's kill-first-ask-questions-later approach in an article that appeared in 2007. "To build a better, freer world," he wrote, "we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of law."
It is a pity though that in his stewardship as President, human rights violations by US armed forces, particularly his unadulterated admiration for drone attacks involving untenable collateral damage, have only shot up to unprecedented levels.
The lost US credibility is nowhere more evident than in Pakistan, where its disregard for human rights has generated a strong backlash that is manifest through the emergence of a strong anti-American sentiment and has provided the terrorist recruiters with their most sellable pitch.
According to a report, entitled Living under Drones, compiled by researchers from Stanford and New York universities, the civilian casualties, including those of children, euphemistically termed as "collateral damage", have become the blind spot for US political leadership and military planners. The Obama Administration "in effect counts all military age males [killed] in a strike zone as combatants."
Despite US claims that there have been "no" or "single digit" civilian casualties, the researchers have accumulated data which indicates that since 2004 - when drone strikes commenced - 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children, have been killed in drone strikes. The civilian toll includes the 40 deaths when a tribal jirga was targeted in March 2011. So, was the chain of command, which caused such prominent blunder, ever called in for accountability remains an unanswered question.
The report chronicles that apart from pain caused by casualties, the open season declared in north-western Pakistan has profoundly changed the lives of ordinary civilians, who live under constant anxiety and trauma. Over areas, such as North Waziristan, the drones circle incessantly at around a height of 5,000 feet keeping mothers and children awake in the night; fearful that an unjustified strike may be triggered any moment.
According to the report, people shy away from gathering in groups, including important conflict-resolution jirgas, out of the fear that these might attract strikes. Many parents have chosen to keep their children at home, instead of attending school, to keep them out of harm's way. It states: "The strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial and made family members afraid to attend funerals." In addition, the families, who have lost their loved ones or their homes in drone strikes, now struggle to make ends meet in harsh and unforgiving economic conditions.
Against the context of Balochistan, while the US has picked up unsubstantiated rumours of human rights excesses to castigate Pakistan, it has conveniently chosen to keep its eyes shut in regard to its considerable role in letting the Baloch dissidents establish training and logistics camps in southern Afghanistan that are routinely used to organise strikes inside the restive province.
The dissident sardars, including Brahamdagh Bugti, have enjoyed the Afghan hospitality with a nod and a wink from the Nato/Isaf setup to promote their subversive agenda in a democratically-run Balochistan. The collusion of Afghan and Indian intelligence, under the indirect patronage of the US forces, has crippled the writ of the civilian government to an extent where the Frontier Corps (FC) have to be requisitioned to let the system remain functional.
In Afghanistan, where not much moves without a US blessing, it will be a great service to the promotion of human rights in Balochistan if the sanctuaries of insurgents there are removed and the provincial government ensures that the state's writ becomes effective enough to return the FC to their primary task; which is maintenance of a strong vigil on the highly-porous Pak-Afghan border in peacetime.
The writer is a freelance columnist.