US Must not Turn Blind Eye to Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan

June 10, 2010

This piece was originally posted on Huffington Post.

“I lost my sense when I reached the door of my house and saw and heard the crying of my close neighbors and relatives—as if hell fell on me. When I saw people putting the dead bodies of my children, parents, and other relatives in bed I couldn’t bear it anymore and fell on the ground…”

A 25-year-old man who lost nine family members when two shells fired by security forces hit his house during the battle of Loi Sam (FATA).

A young girl from Maidan flees her village carrying her younger brother on her back, they are trying to escape the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in Lower Dir, North West Frontier Province, 27 April 2009. (c) AI

This shocking testimony by a resident of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) is a reminder that it is civilians who suffer as a consequence of the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in northwest Pakistan. In the United States, this conflict is too often described from a pure counter-terrorism angle: “For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.” President Obama forgot to mention that this region is also home to millions of people, who do not support or take part in the violence and are simply trying to farm, raise livestock, weave fabrics, transport goods, raise families, build, repair, or teach.

We too rarely hear their stories. They give a human face to the suffering of millions of Pakistanis in the northwest tribal areas.

The consequence of this ignorance is that today many of the residents in northwest Pakistan live in a human rights free zone  where they have no legal protection by the government and are subject to horrific abuses by the Taleban. Unfortunately, many areas of northwest Pakistan now resemble the Taleban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The world should be alarmed by the way living conditions have deteriorated under the increasingly brutal control of the Pakistani Taleban and its allied insurgent groups; instead, the suffering of the people of this area has been largely ignored, sacrificed in the name of geopolitical interests. Most disturbing is the fact that civilians are increasingly hit on three different fronts: by the Taleban, by the Pakistani army and by U.S. Drone strikes.

This – in short – is the conclusion of a major new Amnesty International report and website on human rights abuses in northwest Pakistan. It highlights the plight of the millions of Pakistani civilians who are caught in the middle, and whose fate is widely ignored in the United States – by politicians and the mainstream media alike. In this new report, we present more than 300 testimonies of residents of FATA and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). As a supplement to our report, we have launched an innovative and unique website that allows activists and experts alike to explore – mainly through interactive maps – this remote area in Pakistan and to contextualize the hundreds of individual stories we have collected. You can investigate for yourself , how the violence has spread from North and South Waziristan in 2005 to the entire border region, and in 2008 and 2009 spilled into the North West Frontier Province, especially Swat.

Obama’s Leadership Required
Both the Pakistani government and the Taleban must comply with international humanitarian law by taking all

Density map of US Drone Strikes in northwest Pakistan, 2005 - 2009 (based on publically available information only). Click to enlarge. (c) Amnesty International. Analysis conducted and map produced by AAAS.

measures to prevent loss of civilian life and the destruction of buildings, including hospitals and schools, and by allowing unfettered access to NGOs so that they can provide food, shelter and medical supplies to the injured and displaced. The U.S. government, too, must comply with international law by clarifying its chain of command and rules of engagement for the use of drones and ensuring proper accountability for civilian casualties. The U.S. government can further help to alleviate the plight of civilian communities in northwest Pakistan by exerting pressure  on the Pakistani government to take steps to address abuses by the Pakistani security forces and local militias called “lashkars” – who are little more than bandits. As the main military supplier and trainer of the Pakistani security forces, the U.S. government cannot turn a blind eye to their abuses. President Obama should also speak out about the abuses committed by the Pakistani Taleban and find ways to exert pressure through those entities who support or who otherwise influence them.

I do not want to underestimate the complexity of the current situation in northwest Pakistan. But complexity is not an excuse for allowing human rights to be trampled.  The lack of development, the poor governance structure, the judicial system that violates, rather than guarantees rights, and other abuses that are a routine part of life for civilians in northwest Pakistan are problems that the Pakistani government and its international allies – including the U.S. government – should address urgently, not only because they are wrongs in themselves, but also because they fuel conflict that poses an acute danger to people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond.