Pakistan’s Missing Human Rights Activists

Five activists have disappeared in recent weeks, including poet Salman Haider.


thediplomat_2017-01-11_15-32-59-386x290Salman Haider — a Pakistani poet, human rights activist, and academic — wrote an Urdu poem in July last year highlighting the disappearances of activists and his friends in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Ironically, he also predicted in his poem that he could soon face a similar fate. A translated excerpt from his poem reads:

Now friends of my friends are going missing,

Then it will be my friends, and then,

It will be my file [of me missing] that my father will take to the courts.

Unfortunately for Haider, his prediction came true when he was recently abducted in the outskirts of the country’s capital Islamabad. Soon after his abduction, which occurred around 10 p.m. on January 7, friends, family, and social media users started the hashtag #recoversalmanhaider on Twitter and Facebook. The hashtag soon gained attention, with the issue selectively taken up by the national media.

Pakistan’s implicit censorship code restrains TV news channels from directly blaming the security forces for such incidents, and thus Haider’s disappearance couldn’t get the coverage it deserved. Print and social media outlets, on the other hand, are still doing their best to keep the issue alive and maintain pressure on the security agencies for Haider’s recovery. Also, large groups of people have organized protests in various cities demanding Haider’s safe return.

Haider was known for raising an active voice against human rights violations and abductions in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. He was also serving on the board of editors for Tanqeed, a bilingual online Pakistani magazine. Tanqeed is one of the few alternate media sources in the country that highlights state and policy failures related to security and citizen’s rights. The magazine has also regularly criticized military operations and the situation in Balochistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas in the north.

Haider wasn’t the only one to have disappeared this month in Pakistan. Four other activists, namely Ahmed Raza Naseer, Samar Abbas, Asim Saeed, and Ahmed Waqas Goraya, were either abducted or went missing in the past week. All were also critical of the state’s policies and advocated for civil rights. Both Saeed and Goraya were known for managing Mochi, a famous anti-military Facebook page. These abductions (and disappearances) have startled a number of social media users and pages critical of the military, with many having deactivated their accounts.

This is not the first time left-leaning activists have either been targeted or abducted. Renowned journalist, author, and liberal activist Raza Rumi was attacked by a militant organization in March 2014 for being critical of the state’s policy of nurturing and protecting militants. Even though his driver died in the attack, Rumi managed to survive, and afterwards immigrated to the United States, fearing for his life. Rumi believes that the state, having already controlled the television news medium, is now going after the digital spaces and trying its best to suppress any dissent.

The attack on Rumi was followed by the death of Sabeen Mahmud, a 40-year-old female Pakistani activist, who was attacked in April 2014. On the day of her death, Mahmud was hosting a discussion on Balochistan’s missing persons and had invited Mama Qadeer, a famous Baloch activist, to take part in the panel. Qadeer, 70, was initially invited by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to speak at an event, titled ‘Un-silencing Balochistan’, on the alleged abduction and killing of the Baloch people. The event was ultimately cancelled by LUMS after stern pressure from the government. Soon after her own event, Mahmud, on her way home in her car, was surrounded by unknown armed assailants on motorbikes, who shot her three times, in the chest and neck.

Incidents involving attacks on liberal activists in Pakistan were rare in the 20th century, but are slowly becoming a norm in the 21st. Where Pakistan was supposed to move ahead, and consolidate its slow transition toward democracy and democratic norms, it’s instead going backwards by suffocating the space for limited voices of reason in the country.

Now, with a targeted campaign against outspoken activists, questions are being raised as to whether the state, along with the security agencies, is targeting the right people in its campaign against militancy. If people advocating for human rights and the recovery of missing persons are going missing themselves, it would seem that something is seriously wrong with the state and its policies.

By: Farooq Yousaf

Source: The Diplomat

Farooq Yousaf is a PhD Politics Candidate from Peshawar, Pakistan, currently pursuing studies in Australia. His research focuses on the role of indigenous conflict resolution methods in countering Insurgency in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Prior to his PhD studies, Yousaf completed his Masters in Public Policy, with concentration in Conflict Studies, from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany.

Who defines Violent Non-State Actors in international politics?


Farooq Yousaf

Source: The Nation

December 14, 2016, witnessed a surprising unfolding of events in Syria, with the Assad forces declaring a victory over the rebel groups in Eastern Aleppo. There were mixed scenes of misery and jubilation on the social and electronic media, with majority of the social media focused on the alleged brutality of Russian and Assad forces killing innocent women and children in the city. On the global front, the US and Russian envoys to the UN also traded barbs at each other. The US tried to shame Russia for supporting Assad and killing Syrians, whereas Russia accused the US of supporting and nourishing non state actors, such as ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. With the complicated war fronts and intra-state conflicts in modern times, especially in South Asia and Middle East, there remains a void on defining violent fringe groups, commonly known as Violent Non State Actors, or VNSAs.

Where Afghanistan’s commonly known VNSAs are the Taliban, Pakistan’s NSAs include Tehrik i Taliban and armed groups based in FATA, Balochistan and South Punjab. In international arena, Al Qaeda and ISIS (or ISIL) are the most talked-about VNSAs currently. Now what makes the whole concept of NSAs interesting is how one party can see them as illegitimate groups, whereas the other party see them more on the lines of having a legitimate right to take up arms against the state. For the sake of understanding, one can assume that VNSAs, irrespective of the circumstances, are never to be backed by a legitimate state. Yet, there remains a major dilemma on who defines the legitimacy of VNSAs in current global politics.

The VNSA dilemma has taken to the fore since the Syrian war started, with countless groups, all claiming to be legitimate representatives of Syrian people, aiming to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The US government, over the course of Obama presidency, has openly supported most of these groups calling for Assad to leave. The Free Syrian Army, which clearly falls under the category of VNSAs, was the prime beneficiary of America’s political and financial support over the past few years. Where on one hand the US government has called for “respect for humanitarian values” and asked the Assad regime not to kill its own people, the same US government has provided the means for groups like ISIS and FSA to flourish.

US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard – who is also a member of Obama’s Democratic Party – recently called on the US government to cease its support for Al Qaeda, ISIS and other affiliated groups. Gabbard also blamed America’s Gulf allies, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, of supporting ISIS and fuelling the raging spiral of militancy in the Middle East. Gabbard’s revelations didn’t come as surprise to many, especially those who remembered the June 2015 collapse of a terrorism trial against Bherlin Gildo, a Swedish national, in London. Gildo’s lawyers had then claimed that he was fighting for the same group that was supported by the west, especially the UK and USA. It was revealed that the British government was providing active lethal and non-lethal support to the VNSAs in Syria.

The irony of the matter is that both the UK and USA have criticised countries trying to bring VNSAs on the table in Afghanistan. In a recent development in neighbouring Afghanistan, the government in Kabul tried to take the Russian ambassador, Alexander Mantytskiy, to the task for his country’s alleged reaching out to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan media, as well as the government, called Russian transgression a deadly game for the region. With the US still controlling most of the policy affairs in Kabul, such a backlash for Russian actions was expected. Yet, the situation presented the same dilemma of who defines which VNSAs are to be negotiated with?

The western media discourse is also helping little when it comes to solving the complex puzzle of understanding the VNSAs. The FSA, and other anti-Assad groups, even with their evident attacks against the Syrians, have been commonly tagged as “moderate rebels”. On the other hand, any group, which is even remotely associated with Iran and Iran, and supports the Assad regime comes under scrutiny and criticism. Both the warring sides in Syria have had their fair share in inflicting misery upon the Syrians. Yet, the one-sidedness of the western media, when it comes to branding these groups, is an epitome of misinformation and partisan reporting of events.

If countries like China, Russia, Iran or even Pakistan try reaching out to VNSAs, it is only seen as an implicit support for militant groups and militancy. Whereas countries supporting groups such as the FSA use the argument of aiding the “moderate rebels” against a tyrant. This dichotomy points towards the root of security problems currently faced by the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. Until and unless there is a consensus on the form, function and agenda of VNSAs, establishing peace would always remain a distant and unassailable proposition.