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Reining in civil society in Pakistan

Shamil ShamsJuly 1, 2015

PM Nawaz Sharif's government has tightened its grip over the country's NGOs in an attempt to monitor their work closely. But why does the government feel the need to muzzle rights organizations? DW examines.

Balochistan Education (Photo: DW/Abdul Ghani Kakar)
Image: DW/A. Ghani Kakar

If you think that civil society flourishes and grows under civilian rules, you might be mistaken. Pakistan's example tells an entirely different story. Whereas non-governmental organizations and human rights groups worked mostly freely during former military dictator Pervez Musharraf's time in power, their activities have been severely curtailed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power in 2013 after sweeping the general elections.

Sharif's administration doesn't seem to be very comfortable with rights groups, particularly the international NGOs (INGOs), and claims they are working against the interests of the state. Last month, the government banned the charity Save the Children on the same premise, but later revoked its decision. Experts say the UK-based aid agency is allowed to work for now but under severe restrictions. The government is likely to keep a close eye on its activities.

Sharif's administration also wants to shut down the offices of more than a dozen NGOs in the coming months, and will present a new legal framework for the development and aid groups working in the country.

"We won't allow any organization to work against Pakistan, however, we are not against civil society," Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan's Interior Minister, told reporters last month. "We don't want to close any NGO. We also don't want to expel aid workers. But we want these groups to work under our law. If they don't follow our policies and rules, we will act against them," he added.

A Pakistani police officer stands guard outside a sealed 'Save the Children' office in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, June 12, 2015 (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
Save the Children's programs in health, education and food security 'reached four million children and their families'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

Khan also said that some non-governmental civil society groups in Pakistan were working for India and Israel, with whom Islamabad has bitter relations.

"There is an increased level of paranoia in Pakistan of late, particularly following some bellicose statements from Indian officials that appeared to threaten the use of force, if provoked. I think that Pakistani authorities, who are dominated by a security establishment that loves to propagate 'the-world-is-out-to-get-us' narratives, are using those statements as a silent pretext to assert more control over foreign entities in Pakistan," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

"Of course, the foreign NGOs are not from India, but Pakistan likely feels that it can still telegraph a message of toughness to the world, and specifically to India, by launching these crackdowns. Ultimately, Pakistan wants to showcase strength in the face of threats from India. And an anti-civil society crackdown is one way to do so," Kugelman added.

Government's own 'shady activities'

It is understandable why Islamabad temporarily banned Save the Children. The group had been on the security agencies' watch list since 2012 when some unsubstantiated reports emerged that it 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 US intelligence agency. Save the Children denies the accusations. What is difficult to comprehend is why the government wants to put the entire civil society under pressure.

So what does the government fear? The following comments by Pakistan's interior minister might be useful in examining the government's hostility towards civil society: "We have information about two organizations that were registered in some African countries and were involved in spreading negative reports about Balochistan," he said.

Human rights abuses in Balochistan are a highly sensitive topic for Islamabad. An armed separatist movement has been active in the country's resource-rich albeit impoverished province for a decade. The Baloch activists say the Pakistani government is usurping their resources. Recently, Islamabad signed a multi-billion dollar project with China involving Balochistan's Gwadar port. Independent analysts say the rights abuses in the provinces are likely to increase as the army acts even harder against the insurgents to ensure the success of the Pakistan-China corridor project.

According to journalist Abdul Agha, the accusation against some NGOs that they are involved in "shady" activities applies better to the Pakistani army's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (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.

"The civil society is determined to expose human rights violations by the state, and it is not acceptable in Pakistan. That is why the authorities want to silence dissent," Agha added.

Military in the driving seat… again

There are reports about the military's rights violations in other parts of the country as well. These include the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the Pakistani Army is currently acting against the Taliban militants. Civil society groups continue to report on these rights abuses in the name of a war on terrorists.

Also, human rights bodies say the army has assumed a bigger and more powerful role in the country's politics in the past one year by exploiting the security situation in its favor. The restrictions on the media, cyber activism and judiciary have increased manifold in the South Asian country, as the army now has its own courts where it tries terrorism related cases.

Baloch insurgents in the rugged mountains of Pakistan (Photo: Karlos Zurutuza)
Baloch activists say the Pakistani government is usurping their resourcesImage: Zurutuza

"We must keep in mind that in recent months the Pakistani military has quietly intensified its hold over power behind the scenes. The civilian leadership has very little policy space at the moment. So we could be seeing a case of the military, through the government's statements about civil society and NGOs, engaging in some subtle muscle-flexing," said Kugelman. "The military has never been shy to express its impatience for civilians, and particularly the civil society that comprises Pakistani civilians of all stripes," he added.

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 civil society such as 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 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.

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

General Raheel Sharif (L) meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan. Lieutenant General Raheel Sharif has been appointed as Pakistan's 15th chief of army staff on Wednesday, local media reported (Photo: PID)
Pakistan's army is back in the driving seat after years of relative isolationImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

Losing international support

Kugelman fears that the government's clampdown on civil society will tarnish Pakistan's image and the country will lose donors' trust.

"It certainly won't improve Pakistan's global image one bit, which is already not exactly a sparkling one. And it will absolutely concern donors, though I imagine that the tough talk emanating from Pakistan in the public sphere has been accompanied by some private reassurances to Pakistan's most trusted donors," said Kugelman.

The analyst is of the view that the government should not act in a manner that could result in jeopardizing its external support, "which in some ways serves as a lifeline for Pakistan's fragile economy."