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Asia

Was Save the Children really working against Pakistan?

After shutting down offices of Save the Children due to "anti-state" activities, Pakistan has reversed its decision. But rights activists say the government wants to control civil society to hide its own "shady" actions.

The Pakistani government has made a U-turn and suspended an order it issued closing the office of the international NGO Save the Children in the capital Islamabad, an official said Sunday.

Authorities did not give any reason for the reversal.

Saeed Ahmed, a spokesman for the NGO in Pakistan, was quoted by the AP news agency as saying that they had no word from the government on the decision.

"We would appreciate relevant government authorities to communicate to us officially," Ahmed told the AP.

Save the Children had been on the security agencies' watch list since 2012 when some unsubstantiated reports emerged that the UK-based international aid agency had connections with Dr. Shakil Afridi, an alleged CIA spy.

Pakistani authorities claim that Afridi ran a fake polio vaccination campaign in the northwestern city of Abbottabad to confirm the presence of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for the American intelligence agency. Save the Children denies the accusations.

In September 2012, the Pakistani government ordered foreign workers of Save the Children to leave the country within two weeks. However, it temporarily suspended its decision a week later.

Local sources say that the foreign staff of the non-governmental organization had already left the country before Pakistan's June 11 decision to close down the group's offices countrywide.

Policemen stand guard near the partially demolished compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces last May, in Abbottabad February 26, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

Bin Laden's compound was raided by US Sepcial Forces in May, 2011

'Anti-state' activities

The government has not given an official explanation for its decision to ban Save the Children, but an official told the AFP news agency that the aid group "was doing something which was against Pakistan's interests."

On Friday, June 12, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar also said that no NGO working against Pakistan's national interest will be allowed to continue its work in the South Asian country.

"We welcome NGOs in Pakistan, but they need to understand our laws and constitution," Nisar told reporters in Islamabad, adding that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government wouldn't allow any NGO to work "under the table." He said that some non-governmental civil society groups in Pakistan were working for India and Israel, with whom Islamabad had bitter relations.

Save the Children issued a statement on Friday confirming its office in Islamabad had been sealed by the government.

"Save the Children was not served any notice to this effect. We strongly object to this action and are raising our serious concerns at the highest levels," it said.

The focus of the NGO's work is on children's rights, health, education and food security. It has been active in Pakistan for more than 35 years and has over 1,200 local employees.

A Save the Children official told the Reuters new agency that the government had already been stopping aid shipments entering the country, "blocking aid to millions of children and their families."

Social freedoms under threat

Dr. Mehdi Hasan, former chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told DW that the Pakistani government should tell what kind of proof it had in relation to Save the Children's alleged anti-state activities and links with Afridi.

The veteran activist also said that NGOs should be open about their work and that they should brief the media about their activities on a regular basis.

But many other rights activists say that the government has a history of mistrusting foreign NGOs, and point out that this is not the first time it has accused a rights organization of working for Pakistan's "enemies," which most often includes the country's regional rival India.

A handout picture made available by the UK Department of International Development on 06 September 2012 shows a Pakistani health worker with Save the Children talking to children about hygiene, at Nishanwala, in flooded areas of Kot Adu on the banks of the Indus river in Pakistan, 24 September 2010 (Photo: EPA/UK DEPARTMENT OF INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

Save the Children's programs in health, education and food security 'reached four million children and their families'

"The government and the army don't trust the civil society. Human rights violations are rampant in many parts of the country, and the authorities want to conceal them. That is why they are not only muzzling freedom of press but also other social freedoms. We should look at Save the Children closure from this perspective," a Lahore-based development expert told DW on condition of anonymity.

A lack of accountability

But Usman Qazi, a civil society activist based in Islamabad, is of the view that the NGOs also need to "put their house in order," especially in relation to accountability towards the communities they work with, as well as other segments of the civil society like media, academia, trade associations, and political parties.

"As an activist, I would never support the muzzling of a civil society outfit, especially one that has a positive international reputation. At the same time, my interaction with a cross section of Pakistani society tells me that the NGOs are immensely unpopular and are resented quite widely. They are viewed as supply driven, corrupt, self-serving and unaccountable. This includes all NGOs - national and foreign," Qazi told DW.

Baloch women holding pictures of their missing relatives at the start of long-march in queeta on monday 28 october, 2013 (Photo: Shadi Khan Saif/DW)

Civil society says it will continue to expose 'human rights abuses' of Pakistan's security agencies

"I believe this perception emboldened the authorities to take a bold step like that, knowing that they do not have to fear any reprisal locally against this decision."

What next?

According to journalist Abdul Agha, the accusation against some NGOs that they are involved in "shady" activities applies better to Pakistan's ubiquitous intelligence organization, the ISI.

"Which is a shadier organization than the ISI? What is happening in Balochistan and in the northwestern areas of the country in the name of battle against extremists is not only shady but also dangerous. The army and its agencies are not accountable to anyone," he told DW.

According to reports, there are 19 more NGOs that the government wants banned. The authorities haven't revealed their names yet.

"The civil society is determined to expose human rights violations by the state, and it is not acceptable in Pakistan. The authorities will do their best to silence dissent," Agha added.