Civil society for change at the top, fairplay and citizens’ rights
Activists of civil society organizations and concerned citizens, including representatives of the four provinces, met at HRCP office in Lahore on January 4th 2008 to discuss the over-all situation and the upcoming elections and summed up their concerns and demands in the following statement:
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has made the situation in Pakistan much worse. Elections have been postponed despite the demand by the main parties, including the most severely affected PPP, to stick to the scheduled date of January 8 2008. The new date for elections has been set for February 18, but there are apprehensions of further postponement and lawlessness. General Musharraf’s decision to use the army during and after the elections is ominous as it aims to stifle dissent and public opinion through the use of force. The participants demanded that there must be no further delay in elections as this will only exacerbate the crisis of state and society.
The participants condemned lawlessness regardless of the identity of culprits but insisted that a clear distinction must be made between those who have indulged in looting and destroyed public property and those who gave vent to their spontaneous grief and shock. They expressed concern at reports that the government is using these disturbances as an excuse to enter people’s homes, arrest thousands of party workers and create an environment of fear. The participants strongly and unequivocally condemned the attempt to give an ethnic colour to the tragedy and its aftermath for electoral advantage. They demanded that all political workers must be released immediately and allowed to exercise their democratic rights, otherwise the tendency to single out and blame one party for the disturbances will send wrong signals to the victims and further undermine the federal bond.
It is time for General Musharraf and everyone else to recognize that he is now a major part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. He must accept responsibility for actions and developments that have contributed to the national crisis, especially since August 2006, such as the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in Balochistan: the firing of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, mishandling of the Lal Masjid incident, removal of the majority of the superior judiciary, imposition of Martial Law under the guise of Emergency and the absolute failure to make adequate security arrangements that resulted in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He should quit office forthwith, and allow the assemblies that will come into existence after the elections to elect the president.
Noting that an independent judiciary is critical to the functioning of a democratic state and order in society, the participants called for the restoration of the judges who have been illegally removed from office. The independence of the judiciary cannot become a reality unless the key institution of the superior judiciary is strong and secure. The judges who took a principled stand rather than follow the precedent of bowing to the whims of the executive have set a very different standard for the institution, eliciting country-wide resonance. Their phenomenal act must be fully and unequivocally endorsed by political parties and society at large. And this can only be done, operationally, by ensuring their restoration. The participants called upon both the parties participating in and those boycotting the elections to come together to ensure the restoration of the superior judiciary.
The independence of the judiciary and the promotion of people’s democratic aspirations has been the central concern of the lawyers’ movement. Bar associations have led a remarkable struggle since March 2007 and put up with state oppression and all kinds of other hardships without faltering. Participants were of the view that the lawyers should be extended full support by the other sections of civil society and political parties to continue their struggle.
The participants demanded repeal of the PEMRA ordinance and removal of all restrictions on the media.
The meeting noted that the real menace of militancy and extremism has to be contested politically. Under no circumstance must force be used indiscriminately as such a policy has led to the death of innocent civilians. This is the inevitable fall-out of an undemocratic state and lack of consensus on the basis of a political strategy. In this regard the meeting took a serious view of General Musharraf’s snide and derogatory comments on Pakistani society which he claims is not developed enough to deserve democracy and democratic institutions. Such unmerited denigration is what emboldens the regime’s external patrons, the United States in particular, to assume that Pakistan can deserve nothing better than autocracy and rule by decree. The government’s continued collusion with the US administration has seriously damaged Pakistan’s sovereignty and turned it into a rentier state that puts the interest of the US before the interests of its own people.
The participants noted that the government’s claim of good governance and economic growth are belied by the rising cost of food and essential items. A minimum of eight-hour power cuts, shortages of water and gas are seriously impacting ion people’s lives and livelihoods. As always, the worst hit are the vulnerable sections of society: the poor, women, minorities and children.
The manifestos of the political parties taking part in the elections were discussed at the meeting. While appreciating the parties’ efforts to address the many issues confronting the state and the people, the participants expressed the view that greater attention needed to be paid to the means of combating religious extremism, discrimination against women, minorities and the economically marginalized. It was also necessary to plan for the elimination of poverty and guarantee a fair deal to the tillers of the soil and the working people.
There was unanimity on the point that Pakistan’s tribulations will not end so long as the socio-political economic system was not changed. This means that even after the polls – and assuming the acceptance of results by the people – those sitting in assemblies and those boycotting the polls both will face the challenge of putting the state back on the rails. The people of Pakistan call upon the political parties to knit together and integrate all parts of the federation and to reform all legal, administrative and political structures so as to end denial of full citizenship and other basic rights to the peoples of the Northern Areas and FATA, and to adopt measures that could ensure that equity and justice will govern the relationship between the provinces. Without such steps, no progress will be possible.
I. A. Rehman