New Age Islam Edit Bureau
November 26, 2015
No country for journalists
Afghan refugees & the perception problem
By Madiha Tallat
Towards a world war?
Don’t blame the people
By Daily times Editorial
Pakistan continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, an uncomfortable truth highlighted by yet another murder of a mediaperson on November 22. Television journalist Hafeezur Rehman was shot dead by unidentified people in Kohat, only weeks after a fellow professional, Zaman Mehsud, was ambushed in a similarly ghastly manner by gun-toting thugs in Tank district. As is invariably the norm, the assailants in both instances escaped unchallenged after committing the crime. While it is too early to ascertain the motive of this second murder of a journalist within weeks (the first one was claimed by the Taliban), it is often the case that powerful groups, angry at being shown in a poor light for their wrongdoings, retaliate with violence.
Journalists have to come to grips with all sorts of pressures, from criminal elements, terrorists, government officials and even the law-enforcement apparatus, which is why theirs is such a perilous calling. A report on safety of Pakistani media professionals presents a bleak picture of level of insecurity faced by them and calls for serious efforts by governments and media to change the present situation where those who kill, injure, abduct and threaten journalists are almost never punished. The Report on the Safety of Media Workers, released by Pakistan Press Foundation on the International Day on Impunity, documents that since 2001, 47 media workers have been murdered, 164 injured, 88 assaulted, 21 abducted and 40 detained. In addition, 24 media professionals died while covering dangerous assignments. There have been convictions in only two cases out of 384 cases of violence against media. It should also be noted that Pakistan ranks ninth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ global Impunity Index, which analyses countries where journalists are murdered and their killers roam free. The government needs to end its apathy and help change this dire situation. It needs to take action to ensure media workers carry out their professional duties in a less intimidating environment. They should enjoy the level of freedom necessary to work unhindered to report on matters of public interest.
The writer is a lawyer associated with LUMS. She has previously worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Law
Refugees have a perception problem. In marketing parlance, you are said to have a perception problem when your product gains a negative perception in the minds of the consumer. In the case of refugees, this unfortunate phenomenon is so prevalent that the term ‘refugee’ has come to be associated with criminality, a drain on local resources and most recently, terrorism. Not surprisingly, this has not boded well for refugees, as much state-led policy and the extent and nature of assistance they are provided with has predicated upon this perception.
In Pakistan, the claim that refugees are criminally inclined is a theme many of us have heard waxed eloquent by people of all stripes. Worryingly, and despite any statistical support for such assertions, this negative perception extends beyond the layperson to government cadres in charge of ensuring the wellbeing of these people. The fact that Pakistan continues not to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention despite having one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world is telling of this attitude.
This was not always the case; in fact, the initial influx of refugees that came in during the first Afghan war was welcomed with open arms by the state. The language of the official declarations allowing them refugee status reflected this sentiment by referring to the refugees as our “Afghan brothers”. Grandiose speeches making comparisons between the Afghans and their hosts and the Muhajireen-e-Makkah and the people of Madina were made. At the time, Pakistan was deeply embroiled in this conflict, terming it a “holy war” and its coffers were flush with Afghan aid. As the conflict dwindled and American interest and aid dried up, so did the brotherly goodwill towards the refugees. Harassment by state functionaries, such as by the police, became commonplace and many Afghans, being unable to return to their war-torn country, were now stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not surprisingly, after the fall of the Taliban regime, large numbers chose to return to Afghanistan.
For a long time, Pakistan continued without any laws for national recognition of refugee status, leaving refugees vulnerable to harassment and at the mercy of local authorities. Finally in 2006, a registration exercise was undertaken in collaboration with the UNHCR where those who came forward to be registered were given Proof of Registration (POR) cards, allowing them a formal legal status till the expiration of their POR. Unfortunately many did not participate in this exercise, either for the fear of being forcibly returned, or due to inability to get registered for logistical reasons or for arriving in the country after the registration exercise had ended. Either way, those who did not register automatically became illegal aliens despite there being legitimacy of their refugee claims, creating a further tier of persons vulnerable to harassment.
The post-9/11 era saw refugee treatment deteriorate even further with crackdowns and forced evictions of Afghans, and accusations against them of harbouring terrorist elements even when there was no evidence. This situation of state harassment and abuse escalated to new heights after the attack on APS, Peshawar. This increase in mistreatment by the state forms the subject of a report recently released by Human Rights Watch, which consolidates the experiences of refugees in Pakistan, primarily focusing on the mistreatment by the police of even those who hold POR cards. The report includes numerous first-person accounts of refugees returning to unsafe situations in Afghanistan out of fear of physical harm and constant harassment in Pakistan, something that directly contradicts the principles of ‘voluntary return’ that Pakistan has time and again committed itself to. A common complaint in these accounts is the demand for bribes by local authorities, which most refugees who live in abject poverty cannot meet.
This is a dark chapter in Pakistan’s human rights record. In Punjab, where there is an ethnic divide between the locals and the Pakhtun Afghans, the ‘otherisation’ of the refugees is complete and they are routinely displaced and hauled away by the police. With such occurrences now extending to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the largest refugee-hosting province, the space for refuge is dwindling. As conflicts spark across the globe and the number of refugees grows by the hour, the ‘perception problem’ that equates refugees with terrorism, ignoring that they are victims of the same, creates a cruel catch-22 situation where they are blamed for being the very evil they are attempting to escape. As this problem grows, Pakistan and indeed the world must rethink the role of the nation-state and its responsibility towards those who no longer have a place to call home.
The downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkish forces has made imminent the near inevitability of the Syrian conflict turning into a global one. This conflict, right from the very beginning, was ripe for global conflict for a multitude of reasons. For one, just when Russia was not happy with overtures in Libya, Syria falls right in Russia’s backyard and thus falls directly under its circle of influence. Secondly, Syria is strategic for Iran for being its only ally in the Arab world and a vital connection for Iranian influence spanning from Iran to Lebanon. The Arab regimes apprehensive of increasing Iranian influence consider Syria as the weakest link in regional Iranian enclosure and thus were looking for ways towards regime change. And when the situation in Syria was bound to explode, because of its Kurdish problem, another key regional power, Turkey, could not let it turn into a victory for the Kurds in Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan. To counter this Turkey not only sided with elements like al Nusra but also facilitated Islamic State (IS) along with other Arab and western regimes. So Syria has become a battleground for proxy warfare for regional dominance between global players. As the conflict spirals, it shows all the signs of turning into a full blown global conflict expanding first to the Middle East and then to the theatres of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and from there to other parts of the globe.
In the undercurrents of this, catalysing this brewing global conflict is the clash of civilisations prophesised by academic Samuel P Huntington, coming to the fore particularly through terrorist activities in the west carried out by extremist Islamist organisations. The theory is a self-fulfilling prophecy or “reflexivity phenomena”, as described by George Soros (inspired by Karl Popper’s work on open society). If more and more people start believing in this prophesised clash of civilisations, the clash will become inevitable. A lot has been said to refute the theory by many an eminent leader and scholar, including Benazir Bhutto, but the theory has many buyers as well and is reflected in many policy decisions, particularly among isolationists and neocons.
The theory, among other things, suggests that the clash of civilisations ultimately will be a clash for aversion towards western values. Now, ironically, if we are talking about the western values of inclusion, equality and humanity, there can be no distinction based on west versus the rest and thus the theory collapses under its own weight. And if by western values it means white supremacist values, there is nothing new to be averse to for the other civilisations. The theory contributes to xenophobic fear, which is used as the pretext for many a global conflict launched for vested and power interests. The theory also misses the key conflicts between the civilisations. For instance, the UK’s fear of a Europe dominated by Germany remains a far prominent national security concern than happenings in Afghanistan. Conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia trumps any conflict Iran may have with the US or the west. Not only that but once xenophobia grows, the difficulty in distinguishing between Muslim versus non-Muslim South Asians for instance will make South Asians align more closely against the xenophobes rather than Hindus deciding to side with west for their ‘cultural’ alignment. Just as all politics is local, so are all conflicts local and rooted in commercial and geostrategic interests and history.
And it is those interests and considerations that will ultimately define how events get shaped going forward. We have discussed above what makes Syria so special. The crisis in Yemen is a continuation of what is happening in Syria. If Islamabad and Washington do not get their act together fast, the same is ready to blow up in Afghanistan. And, in the process, the monster of Islamic State (IS) that has been created is coming to bite the hand feeding it, thus adding a new dimension to the conflict.
With Russia fearing encirclement by the west in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, it is adamant to not turn Syria into an enemy territory. On the other hand, fears of Russian expansion are making many in Europe uneasy, particularly in France and the UK. Thus, the Syrian conflict, with little fuel added, has the potential of turning into a conflict between Iranian and Saudi backed elements in many parts of the Middle East, a wider conflict between Turkey and Russia and a still wider conflict between the west and Russia in eastern Europe. If that happens, it would not be far before the tensions in the Asia Pacific, Africa and Eurasia drag China into the conflict. Whose side who will be on is fluid right now but one thing is for sure: all the necessary ingredients for global conflict are in place.
For now, the four most decisive people in the world — President Obama, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel — have been instrumental in holding it from blowing apart. These four leaders have a pacifist attitude towards areas that are outside the immediate zones of influence of these powers. Particularly President Obama, being mindful of being the greatest power of the time, has acted to defuse the tension on many fronts. Let us hope that these leaders and their respective countries are not forced into circumstances where they let go and drag the world into a mindless full-scale war. In the meantime, the world will be a better place countering academics with little regard for real world realities.
The author can be reached on twitter at @aalimalik
PAKISTANI political parties often attribute the degeneration of elections to the battle of moneybags and their liking for king-like figures or dynasties for party leadership to the people’s lack of political maturity. This myth is the bane of Pakistan’s politics and it must be exploded if progress towards democratisation is to be ensured.
That elections have progressively been turned into a money game is an undeniable fact. The cost of buying a National Assembly/ Senate seat has risen from a few hundred thousand to crores of rupees and a provincial assembly seat costs only marginally less. The report that a newly elected union council chairman in Lahore spent Rs25 million for his success may be somewhat exaggerated but there is no doubt about an unprecedented increase in electoral expenses even at the local government level.
Equally undeniable is the fact that those who buy their elective offices at a high price have little time or inclination to safeguard the interest of their voters. More than anything else they are keen to garner the benefits of their status. Their expertise lies in changing their party labels at the most opportune moment. Dissent with the party leadership’s policies is a risk they vigorously reject. Besides they are sitting ducks for the establishment’s marksmen who are always present in the wings.
The people have been more faithful to their democratic ideals than their rulers.
This arrangement suits the forces of the status quo that are always afraid of the rise of the under-privileged to power. And that is the reason why attempts at controlling electoral expenses do not go beyond meaningless preaching. The losers are the people even though they may not be aware of it.
Likewise most of the country’s political parties are headed by cult figures or scions of political dynasties. The adverse effects of this aspect of Pakistan’s politics are no secret. No party led by a supremo with absolute powers can allow internal democracy or a system of collective decision-making. Those who inherit the mantle of leadership or owe their position to their followers’ weakness for hero worship are like banyan trees under which no growth of alternative or middle-rank leadership is possible.
A political party led by a cult figure is extremely vulnerable to accidents. If its head is removed the trunk will be reduced to a lifeless mass. The party may survive but it will not be the same again, as a political leader said the other day. The vulnerability of political parties also becomes a factor of the democratic system’s instability.
Any patriarchal or dynastic leadership of a political party must rely on a network of favourites, instead of democratically structured party cadres. The party will distribute offices in government, if it comes to power, by favouring kinsmen, loyalists and sycophants. While in opposition, such parties are afraid of developing subject specialists among their members lest they start staking claims to ministerial posts in areas of their specialisation.
Once it is understood that the escalating expenditures in elections and absence of democratically structured parties are against democracy and the public interest both, we may address the question as to who is responsible for this state of affairs — the political parties or the people?
This inquiry should lead us to the days when the big powers decided to close the era of colonial exploitation and proclaimed the right of all people not only to independence but also to democratic governance. Whether replacement of colonialism with neocolonialism, that is, perpetuation of the erstwhile colonial power’s hold over its former colonies without bearing the cost of an army and a colonial administration, was the objective or an unintended result is not the issue at the moment.
The founders of the post-colonial order perhaps believed that all countries freed of colonial bondage would take affirmative action to facilitate their transition to democratisation. In Pakistan’s case, the state has consistently failed to remove the main obstacles to the establishment of democracy.
The first governments of Pakistan (1947-1954) did adopt adult franchise and gave women equality with men as voters but, they tripped while trying to deny East Bengal the principle of one-man one-vote. The adoption of religion as the bedrock of the polity deprived non-Muslim Pakistanis of their right to equality with Muslims and the situation was further aggravated when parliament increased the number of religious minorities.
Worse than anything else, the state resolutely sustained feudal practices in agriculture, the centre’s stranglehold over the federating units and women’s subjugation under a rabidly intolerant patriarchy. Finally, Gen Zia set the state on a course that has been taking it farther and farther away from the democratic path. Now democratic institutions are under great threat from a pseudo-religious militancy. Has all this been done by the people or by the custodians of power regardless of the robes — democratic or authoritarian — they chose to wear? It is the political parties that are responsible for denying electoral space to ordinary citizens and for failing to democratise themselves.
The people on their part have been more faithful to their democratic ideals than their rulers and the political waderas. They brought down the Ayub regime, forced Ziaul Haq to hold elections and later on the bitter pill of a party-based dispensation had to be swallowed. The holding of regular elections, the inclusion of Article 3 in the Constitution, the abdication of Gen Musharraf and the 18th Amendment have been the result of people’s pressure on the state and the politicians. Some political parties have surely helped them but the people have been the primary force behind these achievements.
Today, Pakistan’s democratic experiment is in dire straits but there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that Pakistan can survive only as a truly democratic state and that the people will ultimately achieve their goal. The only question is whether the political parties will lead the masses or will be led by them.
By shooting down a Russian military aircraft on the pretext of protecting its sovereignty and airspace, Turkey’s latest bout of hawkish and unnecessary muscle flexing is threatening to undo a cautiously developing international consensus about dealing with the Islamic State (IS) in the wake of the Paris attacks. The basic facts about this latest twist in the sordid saga of Syria’s endless chaos are predictably murky and heavily contested. The only thing agreed upon by all parties is that the Russian Su-24, an all-weather attack aircraft carrying a crew of two, was shot down by two Turkish F-16s around the Turkish-Syria border on the morning of November 24 and the plane crashed in the mountains of the province Latakia in a region contested by the Syrian government and rebel forces comprising of ethnic Turkmen fighters. This militia was funded and trained by NATO to combat the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The two pilots of the plane ejected upon being hit and were subsequently shot at by the Turkmen militia. The shooting killed one of the pilots while the second one has been rescued after a 12 hour military operation conducted by a coalition of Russian and Syrian forces, in which another Russian soldier lost his life. This was the first Russian plane to be targeted since Russia began its aerial campaign of bombarding all rebel forces who have taken up arms against the al-Assad regime, of which Russia has been a staunch long-time ally. The Russian campaign has since its beginning attracted hollow criticism from the western powers whose inaction and ill-advised arming of a mishmash of so-called ‘moderate’ Islamist proxies to take down al-Assad are in fact directly responsible for the quagmire in Syria. The west wants Russia to exclusively target IS, whereas Russia sees all rebel forces as fundamentally terroristic and a cause of instability in the region. For Turkey then, the Russian bombardment of camps of its own proxies, the aforementioned Turkmen, has always been a prickly matter and thus it can be safely presumed that the Turkish government was itching for a reason to strike a blow against Russia and it found the pretence to do so in this alleged instance of a violation of Turkish airspace. The Russian version of events vehemently denies that its plane crossed into Turkish airspace and maintains that the plane was hit one kilometre inside the Syrian border and posed no threat to Turkey. A demonstrably angry Vladimir Putin has called the shooting down of the plane a “stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists” and has warned of “significant consequences”. Even the Turkish version of events, while contradicting the Russian narrative, does not shake the sense that this was a deliberate ‘provocation’ by the Turkish forces since the radar image released by them — along with a leaked letter to the UN — reveal that the plane only traversed inside Turkish borders for a short window of 17 seconds and was actually shot down after it was safely back inside Syrian airspace. This scandalous revelation is enough to throw out any suggestions of Turkey merely protecting its territorial integrity. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was less coy about Turkey’s paternalistic protection of the Turkmen militia as he openly stated that Russian attacks on Turkmen were not justified under the guise of combating the terrorism of the IS and that he had himself ordered the Turkish general chief of staff to shoot down any plane approaching Turkish borders.
The veritable mess that Syria has become is host to multiple sovereign actors as the country has become a playfield for various, incompatible power plays. With so many vested interests and agendas at work, the situation on the ground is like a powder keg waiting to go off and such an incident of a direct engagement between a NATO member and Russia was always feared. Once again, the competing future plans for Syria held by external powers are to blame, with the fate of Bashar al-Assad being the major point of contention. However, squabbles of this nature serve only to benefit the IS, as it has plentifully gained from a distinct lack of a coordinated global response against itself in the past. The NATO members should by now recognise that they are playing second fiddle to Russia in combating the myriad of terrorist organisations in Syria and parroting the line against al-Assad only breathes more life into the ceaseless Syrian turmoil. It is therefore the responsibility of NATO to check Turkey’s dangerous ambiguity towards the IS and mediate between the two duelling countries to prevent this friction from turning into a counterproductive escalation of hostilities. *
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