By Polly Truscott, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Polly Truscott, Deputy Asia-Pacific Director for Amnesty International. The views expressed are her own.
The Taliban’s brazen assassination attempt on brave teenage human rights activist Malala Yousafzai grabbed the world’s attention, shining a rare light on the ongoing cycle of violence in Pakistan’s insurgency-hit northwest Tribal Areas.
Malala miraculously survived the October shooting, but the incident is but one of many in a region locked in a climate of lawlessness where perpetrators of human rights abuses act with impunity.
In an extensively researched report released last week by Amnesty International, a disturbing pattern of violations by Pakistani forces – from torture and other ill-treatment to enforced disappearance without access to family, lawyers, the courts and with no information about their fate and whereabouts – reveals the failure of Pakistani authorities to address the fundamental lawlessness of the Tribal Areas.
The Armed Forces themselves stand accused of committing a range of violations against thousands of men and boys arbitrarily detained in the northwest, emboldened by new and old security laws that give their personnel sweeping powers and allow them to violate human rights without any fear of prosecution.
The report also documents Taliban abuses, including indiscriminate attacks and the deliberate targeting of civilians, as well as the brutal executions of captured soldiers and those they accuse of spying.
A rugged and remote area bordering Afghanistan, and home to more than 20 million people, the Tribal Areas are one of the least developed parts of Pakistan. Reports indicate that sixty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while literacy rates and per capita incomes are less than half the national average.
In 2009, the Pakistani Armed Forces launched their most decisive operations into areas where armed groups like the Taliban had effectively taken control.
Although the Armed Forces were successful in retaking much of the territory, the conflict took a huge toll on the civilian population – millions were displaced and thousands killed, as Amnesty International documented in a 2010 report.
But despite a relative lull in direct fighting between the army and Taliban, there has been no let-up for the people in the region. With the military granted broad powers to arrest and detain, security forces have picked up and detained thousands of men and boys for long periods with little or no access to due process safeguards.
Many have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated in custody. Some don’t survive – almost every week, bodies of those detained are returned to their families, or simply found dumped across the Tribal Areas.
Gulzar Jan, a 40-year-old farmer, had in April 2010 voluntarily reported to an Army contingent after being accused of Taliban ties by a neighbor.
In August 2012, his father Farooq was notified that Gulzar Jan’s dead body had been brought to a local hospital – it was the first he had heard of his son’s whereabouts in two years. The police said he died of “illness,” but there was no autopsy or investigation into the circumstances surrounding Gulzar’s death by the authorities, even though it is required under international law.
“When I surrendered my son to [the Army] he was a healthy man, he weighed about 85 kilograms. When they handed his body back it was about one-third of his previous size. We bathed him before burial. I noticed his back was covered in lashes that looked like whipping marks,” said Farooq.
Gulzar Jan’s case is emblematic of the enforced disappearance and alleged treatment of detainees at the hands of the Armed Forces, and of the failure of Pakistani authorities to investigate these cases effectively.
No investigation of any kind has been conducted into any of the other multitude of cases we have documented.
At the same time, deadly attacks by armed groups like the Taliban continue, claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians in the last three years alone.
People we spoke to in the region feel trapped in the middle – by threats from the Taliban on the one hand, and from the risk of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance on the other. Many who hoped the situation would improve after the state started to push out the Taliban from 2009 onwards are disillusioned.
At the heart of the crisis is a legal system that excludes the enforcement of human rights protections by the courts and allows the armed forces to operate with impunity.
The Tribal Areas are still being governed under the draconian colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation, while acts of parliament ordinarily do not apply to parts of the region. A new set of laws introduced in 2011, the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations (AACPR), granted the army even broader powers to arrest and detain in a manner that violates international law.
Neither Pakistan’s high courts nor parliaments have any jurisdiction in the Tribal Areas. Although the courts have nevertheless heard cases challenging the lawfulness of some detentions, there have been no prosecutions of Armed Forces personnel for alleged torture, enforced disappearance or deaths in custody.
Until the Pakistani government addresses the deeply flawed legal system in the region, the Armed Forces will be able to commit human rights violations with impunity. The AACPR has to be repealed and the jurisdiction of the courts and parliament extended to the Tribal Areas.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan faces major challenges in the region in confronting persistent violence by armed groups, re-establishing civil authority and infrastructure after years of conflict, and addressing a continuing humanitarian crisis. But without urgent steps to make the Armed Forces accountable before the law and protect the human rights of all people in the Tribal Areas, the region will remain locked in perpetual lawlessness.