By Huma Yusuf
November 25, 2013
PAKISTAN’S reaction to the drone strike in Hangu followed predictable lines: condemnations from all quarters, an expression of ‘deep concern’ to the US, more threats regarding the blocking of NATO supply lines, and political point-scoring at the expense of the PML-N.
This anti-drone chorus has long revealed more about Pakistan than the nature of militancy or warfare in the region. And juxtaposed last week against the International Day to End Impunity, responses to the Hangu attack highlighted much about Pakistani attitudes towards justice and impunity.
Anti-drone activists cite several reasons why warfare via drone is untenable under international law: the possibility of civilian deaths cannot be ruled out; strikes constitute the use of extraterritorial force and so violate a country’s territorial sovereignty; and killings by drones could be considered extrajudicial executions.
The last point seeks to emphasise that drone strikes undermine due process, since there is no attempt to arrest suspected offenders, gather evidence against them, or bring them to justice in fair trials. It is telling that while Pakistanis seize every opportunity to decry the civilian deaths and territorial violations that drones cause, there are never more than a few murmurs about the subversion of the course of justice.
The lack of interest in due process and criminal justice of course extends beyond drones. Criminals, members of our security forces and political elite, and other influential and wealthy people routinely get away with murder (and a host of other crimes) with little to-do.
The rise of the mainstream and social media over the past decade has brought some attention to high-profile cases — the ‘Justice for Shahzeb’ campaign against the killing of a university student by two men from landed families, for instance — but these are often resolved outside the courts through intimidation, payments of ‘blood money’, deal-making, or promises of expatriate visas.
In each instance that the criminal justice system is circumvented, it grows weaker and more irrelevant, and the culture of impunity that thrives in its place fuels further cycles of consequence-free violence and law-breaking.
On Saturday, the international community commemorated the International Day to End Impunity. Free expression activists mark the day to draw attention to cultures of impunity within which journalists, bloggers, and artists are frequently intimidated or attacked while the perpetrators of these actions remain unpunished.
The day falls on the anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre in the Philippines in 2009, during which 32 journalists and other media professionals were killed. The message of the campaign is that free speech and expression are not possible in a culture of impunity.
No doubt, impunity for the killers of journalists is a huge challenge in Pakistan. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 42 journalists have been killed (23 of them murdered) in connection with their work over the past decade. Since 2003, not one murder has been solved or a conviction won.
Meanwhile, incidents of violence against journalists are increasing in frequency, suggesting that the record of impunity has emboldened those who would rather silence journalists. In 2010 and 2011, Pakistan ranked as the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist. Rather than address this issue, our government in 2012 perversely lobbied against a United Nations action plan to combat impunity in journalist murders.
I am often asked at international fora why there are no sustained campaigns in Pakistan to end impunity for those who murder journalists, spearheaded at the very least by media professionals. The answer, I suspect, is that it’s difficult to see journalist killings as exceptional in a culture where there is impunity for almost all violent and criminal acts, and where both the regard for and expectations of the criminal justice system remain low.
Much of the problem lies with the criminal justice system itself, which is deeply flawed, backlogged, and corrupt. The system is not independent, and investigators and prosecutors lack the resources, training, and security to bring about successful prosecutions.
Law-enforcing agencies are not equipped to gather forensics and other evidence, while intimidation and political intervention make guilty verdicts a rarity. But without an effective criminal justice system to end the culture of impunity, we remain at the mercy of those — whether state or non-state actors — who resort to violence as a means by which to secure power.
For this reason, opponents of drone strikes should equally emphasise the fact that strikes are extrajudicial, and so violate the sanctity of our criminal justice system. The fact is, drone strikes and journalist killings, though seemingly unrelated, both indirectly occur because of the culture of impunity in Pakistan, the failures of law-enforcement, and the shortcomings of our criminal justice system.
Examples abound for how justice in the case of those who intimidate or kill journalists curtails the practice. A similar logic could be applied to militancy too.
Imagine a scenario where instead of being targeted in a drone strike or killed in an extrajudicial ‘encounter’ with security forces, violent extremists and militants were arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated.
There is no romance of martyrdom or jihad in being incarcerated — there is just the fact of the violent crime. Given that the lure of militancy lies in the rhetoric of faith, mission, and martyrdom, what better way to undermine it than with the reality of criminality and justice? It is high time we highlighted that Pakistan’s pervasive culture of impunity is the root cause of its many woes, and addressing it — rather than its symptoms — is the only way forward.
Huma Yusuf is a freelance journalist.