PAKISTAN: EARLY WARNING--Pakistan approaching catastrophe; UN Security Council intervention needed now
The killing of a renowned politician and some 37 of his supporters in a mountain hideout by the Pakistan military on August 26 has thrown the country headlong towards a catastrophe that can only be averted by intense international and national efforts. As the news of the killings in Balochistan has spread, so too has violence against the administration, and between communities. The country now faces the prospect of outright war between the armed forces and the people of Balochistan, not to mention leaders and peoples in other provinces who have witnessed that the government knows only to deal with dissent through bloodshed.
Although conflict over Balochistan goes back to the time of independence, the current crisis is a direct consequence of the October 1999 military takeover. In 2001 the Pakistan Army began operations in the province that provoked armed conflict. Since then more than 4000 persons are estimated to have been unaccounted for after arrest in this province alone. In January 2005, when an army officer was alleged to have raped a doctor working in Sibi, the president-cum-army commander used his influence to save the accused by bombarding the area, killing several people and forcing evacuations. And on other occasions, as now, the air force has been used to bomb the people of Balochistan into submission. The primary reason for all of this is of course the province's rich resources, especially its supply of some 40 per cent of the country's natural gas, which the federal government feels disinclined to share.
Since the latest killings, Balochistan has been cut off from the world. In response to the violent reaction of thousands of alienated and frustrated youths, more than 1000 people are reported to have been arrested in the last few days, and about a dozen killed. Four cities--including Quetta, the provincial capital--have been placed under indefinite curfew. The provincial government has all but ceased operations. Law enforcement is in the hands of the military. Soldiers are also reported to have been stationed at hospitals. The federal government has suspended train services to the province. The highways were initially closed by the government, and have now been blockaded by angered local people.
Balochistan is in serious danger. Curfews, check points and blockades are all obstacles to the movement of much-needed foods and medicines. The consequent suffering to the entire population is only further exacerbating anti-government sentiments. And under the cover of darkness and with transport links cut, the security forces are free to do as they please without fear of immediate consequences. The vacuum following the chaos is also being quickly filled by intercommunal violence.
Pakistan too is in serious danger. More than 200,000 people from the province are already believed to have fled into neighbouring provinces due to the ongoing conflict there. The latest incidents are expected to cause a rapid upsurge in their numbers in Sindh especially, provoking further instability. Meanwhile, provincial assemblies and regional leaders have learnt the lesson that when the stakes are high, the only diplomacy known to the federal government is by way of F-16s and helicopter gunships.
And South Asia is in serious danger. Some commentators are talking of a repeat of 1971, when the war with East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, caused the loss of around a quarter of a million lives and countless needless atrocities. Under the current circumstances, an outbreak of massive hostilities is conceivable. Some fear that India could take advantage of the looming instability in Pakistan and provoke a new disastrous war between the two big rivals; alternatively, current and retired military officials who have themselves blamed India for the militancy in Balochistan may find a pretext to launch attacks against India of their own accord. Whatever the case, large-scale conflict over Balochistan will undoubtedly have profound negative effects on the entire region: including the frontline of the much-vaunted "global war on terror" there.
For these reasons, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is today issuing an early warning that Pakistan is fast approaching a disaster that requires urgent intervention. If the conflict which is still at present confined to Balochistan spills over significantly into neighbouring provinces or regions it could prove to be catastrophic.
The AHRC today calls upon the government of Pakistan to: first, stop the aerial bombardments and killings in Balochistan without condition; secondly, allow the free movement of goods and persons in and out of the province; thirdly, restore civilian administration and policing there without delay. It also calls on the international community, and in particular, the UN Security Council, to take up the situation in Pakistan as a top priority. Let the UN not again be held to blame for acting too late: the time is now for heavy international attention and swift intervention to stop the death of a man and his followers leading to countless more lives being lost.