Eric Shu reports on the National Endowment on Democracy event May 2 on “Threats to Democracy in Balochistan”:
Malik Siraj Akbar, a Pakistani journalist and current Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, presented an overview of the human rights threats in his native Balochistan, the largest province in Pakistan. It was not until February 2012 that Balochistan gained attention in the United States, largely due to a Congressional briefing and a House resolution in favor of self-determination drafted by California Congressman Dana Rohrbacher. Immediate backlash from the Pakistani government ensued, but the fallout has been limited.
Akbar’s presentation focused on the background of the region, the threats to the area’s defenders of democracy, and ended with a set of recommendations for both domestic and international players.
Akbar described Balochistan as a “richly-poor” Texas-sized province in southwest Pakistan with immense but little recognized geo-political importance. Annexed in 1948, Balochistan contains one of the region’s largest reservoirs of natural gas and an abundance of gold and copper. However, it is also a region with the lowest literacy rates in Pakistan and a severe lack of human rights protections.
There are three primary threats to democracy in Balochistan: political assassinations, enforced disappearances, and limited press coverage.
Political leaders and individuals who have advocated for an independent Balochistan are the assassination victims. The Pakistani military has denied responsibility. Non-existent communication between the federal and provincial governments has exacerbated tensions in the region and led to increasing calls for independence through violent means.
The victims “enforced disappearances” are predominantly ethnic Baloch as young as 12 and as old as 80. Estimates gathered from local sources suggest they number in the hundreds. They are picked up off the street or plucked from their homes and subjected to torture, solitary confinement, and warned of retaliation if they speak out. The military has denied responsibility.
These problems are compounded by the fact that local media and press networks are severely underdeveloped in Balochistan. Coverage of the area is limited not only internationally, but also domestically. Pakistani press do not cover Balochistan well. Foreign journalists are routinely denied access, making it difficult for human rights violations to be documented and publicized abroad.
Akbar concluded his presentation with recommendations for stakeholders.
To the Pakistani government, Akbar advocated ensuring freedom of the press by providing access to international journalists. He also pushed for fair Baloch representation in the region’s security structures (army, police, frontier corps) and called for the military and intelligence services to be brought under civilian control.
Akbar’s suggestions to the United States focused on implementation of the Leahy Amendment prohibitng U.S. foreign assistance to foreign military units that commit human rights violations. Although Human Rights Watch reported violations in 2010 and 2011, there has not been an investigation into these cases and U.S. aid to Pakistan has continued.
The Congressional hearing in February 2012 on Balochistan drew short-lived attention to the region and its challenges. Continued attention on the issue of human rights in Pakistan from brave individuals such as Akbar will help keep the discussion in focus and hopefully bring badly needed change to the region.