By Mustafa Qadri, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mustafa Qadri is Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher. The views expressed are his own.
Saturday was a milestone is Pakistan’s short history – for the first time since the country’s creation in 1947, one elected civilian government will be followed by another after seeing out a full term in office. Up until now, every democratically elected government’s term in office has been cut short by an intervention from the powerful military. But this historic moment was overshadowed by a wave of coordinated attacks targeting election candidates, their supporters and election officials. More than 100 people were killed and many more injured countrywide.
The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the majority of the attacks, which have mostly targeted secular political parties, especially the Awami National Party and Muttahida Quami Movement. The Pakistan Peoples Party also had to drastically scale down on campaigning in the face of threats.
In cities and districts from Karachi in the south to Khurram Tribal Agency in the north, the Taliban distributed leaflets and issued statements threatening “dire consequences” for those who participate in the elections.
Such intimidation and attacks were part of a long line of attempts by the Taliban and other armed groups to prevent the people of Pakistan from freely engaging with and shaping their society. No matter how you look at it, these attacks and the general situation in the country demonstrate that human rights must be a priority for Pakistan’s incoming government.
The violence continued right up to election day, including a bombing in Karachi that claimed 11 lives. Unfortunately, women in some districts of the north-west were also prevented from voting, a glaring reminder that discrimination on the basis of gender remains a serious problem.
But the remarkably high turnout of men and women voters across the country represented a clear rejection of the Taliban’s campaign of fear.
Pakistan is facing enormous human rights challenges – something we at Amnesty International noted in an open letter to all political parties during the election campaign. We set out concrete measures that must be taken to improve the human rights situation.
Over the past five years, serious human rights abuses by both state and non-state actors have continued, and in some respects taken a further dive. The state’s record of bringing those responsible for these abuses to justice in fair trials is poor at best, in effect sending the signal that perpetrators can literally get away with murder.
Arbitrary or secret detention, and abduction by state security forces continue at an alarming rate, particularly in the north-western tribal areas, and in Balochistan and Sindh provinces. The bodies of many victims are found simply dumped by a road somewhere, often bearing signs of torture. As far as Amnesty International is aware, no member of Pakistan’s security forces has ever been brought to justice for their alleged involvement in these violations.
Millions of people living in perpetual lawlessness in the underdeveloped, war-weary tribal areas continue to be held hostage to Taliban violence, while U.S. drone strikes and bombings by Pakistan forces are a constant threat. There are no quick and easy solutions for this region. But as highlighted in an Amnesty International report from December 2012, the situation is made even worse by a deeply flawed legal system that grants security forces sweeping powers, yet excludes oversight by the courts and parliament.
However, the people in the tribal areas are not the only ones living with minimal legal protection – the same goes for Balochistan. Men and boys from the ethnic Baloch community have been abducted or extrajudicially executed by the security forces, with those advocating for greater autonomy or separation from Pakistan most at risk.
Pakistan’s vibrant and independent media scene is in many ways telling people what the government will not – but even this is under threat. Media workers, too, have fallen victim to human rights abuses, with at least 48 killed since the last elections in 2008. As far as Amnesty International is aware, no one has been held accountable for these killings. Media workers who report on security issues and in violence-hit areas like Karachi, the tribal areas and Balochistan live with the fear that they could be killed at any moment and the state will not bring those responsible to justice.
The blasphemy laws in practice pose a serious threat to social harmony and the rule of law. In March, a mob of thousands destroyed a poor Christian neighborhood in Lahore after one of its residents had a drunken argument with a Muslim friend – just one of countless such examples.
Still, for all the gloom, there is also the courage of the people of Pakistan. It has been a privilege to meet and work with ordinary men and women campaigning for their rights, and to see how millions of people have shown courage in simply voting in Saturday’s elections.
All the more reason for the next government of Pakistan to live up to its duty to enforce human rights protections and bring those responsible for abuses to justice. Pakistan has just passed a historic milestone – let’s ensure that the courage of the people who made it possible has not been in vain.