Sunday, February 26, 2017

Pakistan's political quandary

Global Military Justice Reform has been attempting to follow the back and forth in Pakistan over whether to revive the country's military courts' power to try civilians. That there is posturing and horse-trading going on among the parties is clear, and that's in the nature of politics. Whether the competing demands can be reconciled will be known, maybe, in the coming week. Will the 21st Amendment be revived? If so, for another two years, for three years, for a split-the-difference year-and-a-half? Will the former limitation to persons who act in the name of religion or sect be in a new measure, offensive as that must be to the religious parties? How will the measure affect Baluchistan or FATA?

But there's a more basic issue, and it starts with the notion that there is a class of suspects who are referred to as "jet-black terrorists." The authorities use this phrase as if doing so in itself justifies the use of military courts. But just what is the difference between a "jet-black terrorist" and any other terrorist? The number of victims? Their modus operandi? Or is the term simply there to scare the listener into shutting down his or her thought process and get in step? It does seem to be the latter, and the lack of pushback to it is cause for concern. The term corrupts the discourse.

It has been nearly two months since the 21st Amendment expired. (Indeed, Pakistan's political class knew as early as January 7, 2015 that it would be expiring in two years.) In those two months there has been a great deal of churning and burning, with countless meetings, briefings (although the public has no idea what was said in them), posturing, boycotts, and irreconcilable claims that there either was an impasse or stalemate or that basic agreement had been reached in the interest of national unity and security. In short, a lot of energy -- and some hot air -- has been expended.

That show of activity has been single-mindedly focused on the revival issue . . . and not the more fundamental problem that there would be no need for 21st Amendment courts if the regular court system were functioning -- even as to "jet-black" defendants. If a quarter of the energy that has been expended on revival negotiations had been spent on that continuing problem, it would have been solved long ago. Yet no effort at all seems to have been made in this direction. If half a dozen party leaders and two or three legislative drafters had been locked in a room for a day and given a laptop, a bill could easily have been generated. It could have been quickly rammed through the Parliament as regular legislation; after all, the 21st Amendment itself was rammed through even though it required supermajorities. Why hasn't this happened?

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