February 23, 2012

Hearing in Congress on Baluchistan: Crossing the Rubicon or Political Theatre?

by Eddie Walsh

The genocide and Right to Protect (R2P) arguments are two of the most prominent arguments made by the Baloch diaspora in the United States (U.S.) when advocating for U.S. diplomatic or military intervention in Baluchistan. However, it is highly unlikely that these arguments will gain serious traction in Congress absent a complete rupture in U.S.-Pakistan relations. While they might provide compelling “political theatre” for open hearings like the one scheduled for later today a few miles away in Congress, neither the majority of witnesses nor the larger community of outside experts who Congress holds in confidence are likely to support U.S. government and/or military initiatives aimed at so significantly undermining Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It therefore would be a major shock to informed observers if the hearing signaled increasing Congressional support for either the genocide or R2P claims. Instead, it is expected that the hearing will voice strong condemnation for general human rights violations by both sides in Baluchistan. It also could strengthen calls for a re-examination of Pakistan aid under U.S. laws such as the Leahy Amendment. Either of these outcomes probably can be managed by the American Government/military and Pakistani Government and avoid further undermining U.S. – Pakistan relations. However, in an election year in which Afghanistan-Pakistan policy has, in the words of a senior Western diplomat who previously served in Pakistan, “seeped into U.S. domestic politics,” it is becoming increasingly difficult to forecast changes in the U.S. policy approach to Pakistan.

The Genocide Argument.

There is significant support in the Baloch diaspora for the claim that genocide is being committed in Baluchistan. Dr. Wahid Baloch, President of the Baloch Society of North America, is a strong proponent of the argument: “Our strongest argument for foreign intervention is that there is a genocide going on in Balochistan. It was in slow motion in the past but it is now a full-fledged genocide. All these human right violations - tortures, killings, and disappearances of Baloch political leaders, students, activists, journalists and intellectuals by Pakistani and Iranian security forces - constitute crimes against humanity.”

In Wahid’s opinion, international law makes it incumbent upon the “United Nations (U.N.) and International community to fulfill their obligation towards Balochistan. Being [a] silent spectator is not an option. The U.N. and United States should not be selective when it comes to defending the human rights worldwide.” He is joined by Andrew Eiva, an experienced Washington lobbyist, who argues that “the genocide argument would help get us to the tipping point” in terms of Congressional support for the Baloch cause.

However, not all supporters of the Baloch cause believe the genocide claim will win the day in Congress. Malik Siraj Akbar, a Baloch journalist in the United States, recognizes the inherent weakness in the genocide argument: “Genocide is a good issue to sensationalize Congressmen to the issue but it is only one attribute of a larger conflict. The diaspora need to recognize this. Americans have limited interests.”

Wendy Johnson, a leading civic activist for the Baloch cause, also cautions against it: “Claims of genocide will not lead to a change in the American policy approach to Balochistan. The only thing that will change American policy will be geo-politics.”

These views are reinforced by most outside observers who believe Congress is not looking to endorse the genocide claim. Key witnesses will also likely resist any efforts by individual Congressmen to entertain the human rights situation in Baluchistan as genocide.

Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan Director of Human Rights Watch and one of the witnesses set to testify, certainly does not appear willing to back the genocide claim. When asked whether genocide is underway in Baluchistan, he responded: “Genocide is a big word with specific legal implications. It is in rhetorical overuse. The mere accusation is a serious issue. It requires investigation and documentation. In Balochistan, documentation is very difficult.”

Hasan’s position should not be surprising. He has been clear that the Pakistani government does not bear sole responsibility for the human rights abuses in Baluchistan: “the Pakistani military is but one actor in this conflict. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by not just the Pakistani military but also religious militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and by Baloch nationalist groups. While Pakistani military, paramilitary and intelligence personnel are involved in widespread torture, disappearances and targeted killings, Baloch nationalists, by their own admission, are also targeting and killing non-Baloch.”

Carol Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University and another of the witnesses, shares this view: “Bad things have gone on in the province. But while the state is mostly to blame, some Baloch are also responsible for targeting killing (e.g. of Punjabis in particular). The state needs to accept responsibility for the lack of law and order and reverse its extrajudicial actions. But the Baloch too need to take some responsibility for poor provincial management, dysfunctional politics, and some among them who have taken violent means ostensibly to advance their agendas and redress their (mostly legitimate) grievances.”

Such arguments of joint responsibility should not be taken lightly in the run-up to the hearing. According to an international expert on Pakistan held in confidence by some members of the hearing’s subcommittee, “if there has to be an allegation of ethnic cleansing, who is there a more compelling case against? The Pakistani military is targeting only those it considers criminals whereas some Baloch nationalists are targeting anyone.”

It therefore remains to be seen how hard Congress pushes the witnesses on not just allegations of human rights violations by the Pakistani Government but also by Baloch nationalists.

Responsibility to Protect Argument.

Since Congress appears unlikely to endorse the claim of genocide, some would argue that the Baloch diaspora should look to the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This emerging and hotly contested “international norm,” which has garnered widespread attention following NATO’s intervention in Libya, is regularly invoked - either directly or indirectly - by prominent members of the Western Baloch diaspora.

Eiva is quick to arguethat the NATO-led Libyan operation dramatically lowered the barriers for U.S. support for the Balcoh cause. This is not lost on Wahid, who believes that “the secular and moderate Baloch, who are the victims of Paki and Iranian state terrorism, deserve international help and support. Is Baloch blood cheaper that Libyan, Egyptian or Syrian citizens? The international community is engaged in Libya, Egypt, Syria. Why not in Balochistan?”

Ahmar Mustikhan, a vocal Baloch activist in the United States, takes the argument one step further by using it to justify overt or covert U.S. military aid to Baloch nationalists: “The United States needs to follow the Libyan model. It has a moral responsibility to help the people of Balochistan. But, it has not given any weapons to the Baloch people. When you are protecting terrorists and attacking your own people, you lose sovereignty. It is time for the United States to grab the opportunity and intervene. It is a win-win situation. The United States must be called upon to provide moral support to our cause. If such overt support is not enough, then they need to provide covert support.”

In contrast to the diaspora, many outside experts believe it would be reckless to try to replicate the Libyan Model and start backing insurgent groups in Pakistan.

Stephen Tankel, Assistant Professor at American University and Non-resident Fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is one of those who disagrees: “The Baloch movement is a mixed bag of interests. There is not even one organization to represent it. In addition to the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), there are other groups with different agendas. This raises questions if you want to start talking about backing someone, but that presumes backing one of these groups is in America’s national interests. This debate should not be about which ones we are going to back because to do so would be crossing a rubicon and supporting the very concept of the dismemberment of Pakistan. This is not something the Administration is going to support and Congress should not either. The U.S. is going to be careful not to endorse separatism and should be clear this is an internal issue for Pakistan. It is one thing to support human rights but something quite different to support Baloch independence. The entire government is going to be, or at least should be, leery about sending any message that the U.S. is not willing to respect Pakistan’s territorial integrity. I want to be very clear, Pakistan is incredibly sensitive about violations of its sovereignty and the U.S. should not be feeding into that by considering support for any of the actors in Balochistan.”

Even if Congress was willing to abandon the strategic partnership with Pakistan, experts point out that there remain many compelling arguments against supporting Baloch nationalists. This includes the view that some Baloch already have significant blood on their hands, as articulated by the international expert on Pakistan: “There is no comparison between Libya and Pakistan. Every situation of abuse is not the same. In Pakistan, there are multiple actors committing the violations.”

It also includes the perspective that Baluchistan is not an environment in which the U.S. could have great confidence in probable outcomes, as pointed out by the senior Western diplomat: “As we see with the Arab Spring, the direction that things go is unpredictable. The diaspora might want an independent Balochistan, but no one is going to jump onto it because you don’t know where it is going. The one thing that is probably certain is that you are going to have a lot more deaths and it is not going to be pretty.”

Leahy Amendment Argument.

Of the three main arguments, the Leahy Amendment argument probably represents the greatest opportunity for the Baloch diaspora to increase Congressional support for their cause. Prior to the hearing, the argument to sanction human rights violators in the military and government already has strong support from the Baloch diaspora, the Congressional witnesses, and other outside experts. It also provides one of the easiest mechanisms through which to redress the human rights violations in Baluchistan.

In the run-up to the hearing, Baloch supporters have recognized that legal tools like Leahy provide an opportunity. Eiva and others consequently have tried to strengthen the tie between U.S. aid to Pakistan and human rights violations in Baluchistan: “America has provided Pakistan with American F-16 jets and Cobra gunships which have bombed and strafed the Baluch. The Baluch share the unique distinctio­n as the world’s only people facing genocide from American-m­ade bombs and missiles.” Such emotive arguments almost certainly have not gone unnoticed by Congress.

At the same time, many academics and think tanks fellows, such as Tankel, have voiced strong support for proper oversight of U.S. aid to Pakistan among their other remarks on the hearing: “The U.S. Government must abide by American laws and according to the Leahy Amendment that means making sure that U.S. money is not being used to acquire weapons or that weapons being provided are not used to commit human rights violations within Pakistan. In addition to the laws, there are moral and ethical reasons to investigate this issue and take steps to reduce human rights violation.”

It is clear that witnesses, like Fair, also see the need to ensure that the U.S. Government fully utilizes legal instruments to ensure its aid to Pakistan remains consistent with U.S. laws: “The United States must take advantage of its growing independence from Pakistan to erect increasingly robust containment initiatives that directly pertain to support for terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and murderous abuse of human rights (as we have seen in Balochistan and elsewhere). The United States has considerable tools at its disposal to do so and can certainly innovate new ones where current legislation is inadequate.”

Fair goes so far as to make specific reference to the Leahy Amendment in her draft testimony: “The Leahy Amendment was crafted precisely to punish security forces that engage in human rights excesses, while having the ultimate aim of rehabilitation rather than permanent isolation. U.S. unwillingness to apply this law has contributed to the sense of impunity that pervades Pakistan’s military, police and intelligence agencies. Regrettably, the U.S. record of respecting rule of law and human rights in Pakistan is not unblemished.”

* Correction: Origininal article refered to Carol Christine Fair improperly as an adjunct professor. She is in fact an assistant professor.


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