ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has launched a drive to improve his country’s human rights.
Senior Pakistani officials are quick to note that the general, who seized power in a bloodless coup last October, may be the world’s only military leader with a commitment to the protection of human rights. Musharraf himself is also eager to indulge in symbolism to support his claim to legitimacy.
It was therefore not surprising that Abdul Sattar Edhi, a well-known social activist who has spent more than three decades caring for the poor, was the keynote speaker at a government-sponsored seminar on “Human Rights and Human Dignity.”
Musharraf used the occasion to announce a number of measures to improve human rights in Pakistan. Prisoners, for example, will no longer be forced to wear iron fetters, which cause wrist and ankle injuries. The government will also clamp down on honor killings — a practice popular in some parts of Pakistan in which male family members consider it their legitimate right to kill wives, mothers or sisters who are suspected of having extramarital affairs.
Musharraf also indicated that he will liberalize Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, a move that will be welcomed by the outside world. In recent years, cases of non-Muslim Pakistanis being prosecuted for blasphemy have been widely publicized in the international community.
Subsequent investigations into some of these cases revealed that they were often initiated by individuals who were engaged in bitter disputes with the defendants, and that the blasphemy charges were groundless.
The maximum penalty for blasphemy is death by hanging. Although Pakistan has yet to carry out a death sentence in a blasphemy case, those convicted of this charge have been forced to languish in jails for long periods of time.
Despite the positive response to Musharraf’s measures, his efforts are overshadowed by questions concerning the legitimacy of his government at a time when military regimes are considered unacceptable by most of the world. He came to power in a bloodless coup, suspended an elected Parliament and ordered the arrest of an elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment on the controversial charge of ordering the hijacking of the Pakistani commercial airliner that was carrying Musharraf on the day of the coup.
Despite his efforts to pull Pakistan out of the morass of corruption and misrule that has been the hallmark of the country’s civilian governments over the past decade, Musharraf’s human-rights initiative is unlikely to salvage the reputation of his government.
If the general wants to improve conditions for ordinary Pakistanis, he must consider two issues:
First, no matter how hard he tries to convince Pakistanis and the world that the political order he overthrew was broken beyond repair, he will be unable to silence demands for the restoration of democratically elected government.
At best, the general will be able to launch a series of investigations of politicians from the previous Parliament and prosecute those found guilty of corruption. Musharraf should then restore the previous Parliament, an act that would give a new government the opportunity to enact new legislation to improve Pakistan’s human rights.
Second, while Musharraf’s recent announcements are a brave first step toward tackling some of the most difficult problems facing Pakistan, he must realize that in the absence of major reforms in Pakistan’s police and judiciary, his efforts will have only a limited impact.
Pakistan’s police and judiciary are remnants of the British Raj, which ruled the Indian subcontinent during the colonial era. Corrupt and inept police officials and an equally corrupt and inept judiciary are responsible for many human-rights violations. Often the judicial process adds to the suffering of victims rather than alleviating it. Most policemen are underpaid and overworked, a combination that drives them toward corruption.
Reforming the police and judiciary will be a time-consuming process. Musharraf’s best chance may be to lay the foundations for new reforms of the police and judiciary by instituting changes that can be accomplished in the short term, and leave long-term reform to a future, democratically elected government.
Ultimately, only by improving its political and economic stability, as well as its abysmally low literacy rate of 30 percent, can Pakistan substantially improve its human rights.
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