Information black hole
MEDIA coverage on Balochistan continues to diminish or is suppressed even as the human rights crisis deepens and violence expands in the province. Nothing of the socio-economic plight of the Baloch is being reported or analysed because Islamabad has successfully turned Balochistan into a black hole where retrieving news or information is concerned.
Fewer news stories appear, largely because Islamabad refuses to permit access to seasoned journalists and human rights reporters. Relief workers have been terrified into silence.
In recent months reports of the suspension of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and then the wrap-up of its mission in conflict-ridden Balochistan didn’t generate much debate in the media. The ICRC’s departure from the province will adversely effect whatever little — if anything at all — remains of human rights in the province.
Indeed, the abduction of UNHCR’s John Solecki, and later the kidnapping and killing of an ICRC worker Khalil Dale were gruesome acts. These high-profile incidents led to an exodus of the already dwindling number of humanitarian workers.
Subsequently, the Solecki incident generated waves of ‘kill and dump’ actions, which resulted in the death of many senior and mid-career Baloch activists. And now there are fears that the ICRC’s wholesale departure from Balochistan will further encourage aggressive action against dissident Baloch activists.
The ICRC was perhaps the only international organisation capable of monitoring rights and demanding some serious answers from the Pakistan government regarding the abuse of local and international laws concerning the treatment of dissidents.
It had turbulent relations with the government. There were tensions on issues such as disappearances, kill and dump incidents, torture and harassment of political activists including journalists. In 2011, the ICRC, whose responsibilities include monitoring violations of international humanitarian law in conflict-hit regions, was disallowed access to prisoners in Balochistan to see if there was implementation of the provisos of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, covering the treatment of people in conflict zones.
The ICRC raised its concerns and made it clear that the government was not allowing it access to scores of prisoners arrested on charges of militancy and terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata and Balochistan. According to the ICRC, its last visit to Balochistan prisons was in July 2008.
In a war-like situation, where conflicting parties rarely trust each other, local and international NGOs, especially the reputable and experienced ones, can act as mediators to help alleviate or solve problems of a humanitarian nature.
But in the last decade hardly any well-known organisation, social activist or journalist has been allowed to visit and freely report on the conflict in the region.
In 2010, during the devastating floods, the National Disaster Management Authority did not allow international donor agencies, aid organisations and NGOs to visit and directly assist the flood-affected people of the province.
In 2006, the Unicef country chief was harassed because an internal assessment report on the plight of the Baloch internally displaced persons (IDPs) was leaked to the media. According to the report, the IDPs, mostly women and children were living in makeshift camps without adequate shelter in Jaffarabad, Naseerabad, Quetta, Sibi and Bolan districts.
The Unicef report said that 28pc of five-year-olds were acutely malnourished, and more than 6pc were in a state of “severe acute malnourishment”, with their survival dependent on receiving immediate medical attention. Over 80pc of deaths among those surveyed were those of children under five.
Since 2001 several journalists have been killed along with allegedly hundreds of motivated political activists seen as ‘would-be rebels’ by the perpetrators. Senior and vocal politicians are forced to live in exile. Hardly anyone is left to fearlessly speak out on the appalling conditions in the region.
This has helped suppress data and reports about Talibanisation, presence of drug cartels, corruption and human rights issues such as disappearances, killings, displacement.
The kidnapping of local NGO workers, doctors and lawyers has aggravated the situation, with many political observers of the view that this will lead the human rights crises to escalate. In Balochistan, the resolution of the issue of ‘enforced disappearances’ — involving the clandestine workings of security forces — has been demanded for years by human rights groups.
Meanwhile, the Nawaz Sharif government lacks a courageous and clear policy on Balochistan. The security forces are the prime beneficiary of the long-standing conflict. Security checkposts in Balochistan’s north, south and western regions generate millions of rupees. And any political solution to the conflict would minimise the role of the security forces.
Bodies such as the ICRC must be protected and encouraged to work in areas relating to humanitarian needs and given access to detainees and detention centres to monitor the treatment of prisoners.
The situation in Balochistan needs a political, mature and daring solution such as a comprehensive peace agreement with the real stakeholders to gradually end the conflict. This could be achieved through sincere efforts on the part of the government and by engaging expert mediators and guarantors.
The deal must address issues such as the cessation of hostilities, the restructuring of an ethnically imbalanced security structure, demilitarisation of allegedly state-backed militias, national and provincial power-sharing, the integration of armed groups into a newly structured indigenous security system and rewriting, with the consent of the Baloch people, all agreements concerned with Balochistan’s national wealth and resources.
Something similar to a Marshall plan is needed for the socio-economic development of the Baloch people as are measures to encourage the flow of humanitarian aid to the region.