Business as usual

December 28, 2014

Pakistan’s decision to end the moratorium on death penalty has drawn muted reaction from the rest of the world

Business as usual

Islamabad’s decision to end the moratorium on capital punishment has sunk in across the globe without creating many ripples. World capitals -- especially those that matter to Pakistan -- have predictably issued muted reactions; it’s clearly business as usual for everyone. And this indifference is the most frightening aspect of the global fight against terrorism.

The US, for example, has washed its hands off the affair, saying that it’s Pakistan’s internal matter. And while the European Union has issued a condemnatory statement, the expression of "hope" the moratorium is re-established "at the earliest" shows up the statement as the sop it is.

While the reiteration that the death penalty is "not an effective tool in the fight against terrorism" is consistent with EU policy, the solidity of the stance is undercut by the opening lines of the statement itself. Pakistan is assured, via the statement, of EU support and is commended for "the resolve of the Pakistani people to deal with the scourge of terrorism and violent extremism in all of its manifestations". Of particular note, given the GSP Plus condition of enforcing human rights, the statement makes no reference to possible trade sanctions.

China and Saudi Arabia, given their penchant for capital punishment, are obviously silent. The only ones left to issue fire-and-brimstone warnings about Pakistan’s "vengeful bloodlust" are the rights groups -- Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, for example -- that are the keepers of the conscience of the world.

But this dereliction of all moral responsibility is no surprise; it has been the defining feature of the last 13 years. Since 9/11, the terrorism discourse has carefully been structured to exclude all competing truths and set up a reflexive relationship between fear and anti-terrorism responses, both feeding off each other to fuel further hysteria.

And this is the real reason nobody reacts anymore. The terrorism discourse enabled many of the most powerful states -- which had simultaneously been the authors of the same -- resort to overreach of state power. All these states have, at various times, been complicit in the abuse of power and deviance from human rights norms.

In the quest to conclusively re-establish state monopoly over violence, many used the fears of their citizens to terrorise them further through a self-justificatory narrative, which is now disingenuously peddled by some commentators as "objective realities". And this is why the states that were once great defenders of liberal ideals and values are quiet.

But what, pray, are these objective realities? The decimation of known terrorists and terrorist networks isn’t making the world any safer: 13 years after the longest, bloodiest war in modern history, policy makers are just copy-pasting "IS" instead of "al Qaeda" in anti-terrorism policy papers. The heads of the OBLs, the Baitullahs and the Hakimullahs have been lopped off and lo, scores more have cropped up since.

If the global -- let alone Pakistani -- objective was to set up a new Mutually Assured Destruction strategy vis-à-vis terrorists, it hasn’t worked so far and Pakistan’s decision to end the moratorium on the death penalty won’t work either. The traditional utility of capital punishment as a deterrent applies only in cases where life is a prized commodity, not for those who are ready for suicide missions to further their beliefs.

This is why the characterisation of Peshawar as "Pakistan’s 9/11", worthy of extra-constitutional violence, and the extended news space given to "foreign fighters" -- Uzbeks, Chechens, etc, -- need to be seen for what they are: justificatory narratives with no real efficacy as policy tools. Since 9/11, one of the defining features of the American response to terrorism, which corresponds to patterns seen in other countries as well, is that it has selectively traded the liberties of foreigners for the purported security of the citizenry, while lulling the latter that their rights are not at stake.

The point that needs to be remembered from the examples from the US as elsewhere is that the application of such ‘security-related’ measures and punishments are nearly always extended to citizens, as government officials grow accustomed to the power and seek to expand its reach.

This is particularly problematic in states such as Pakistan which don’t have enviable human rights records to begin with and are also dealing with very loosely worded legislation, such as the Anti-Terrorism Act.

The terms in the law are vague enough to be eventually turned even on political activists, political dissenters and legitimate protesters to government policies, leave aside the scores of innocents that will be entangled in its mesh because of flawed prosecution processes. (Apart from the 8,000-plus that are already on death row, there are thousands across the country who have been incarcerated on charges of terrorism for crimes such as theft, muggings and personal vendettas.)

While the terrorism discourse may have convinced some people and the parliament that this miscarriage of justice is justifiable as the price to be paid for the fight against terrorism, this is a fairly myopic view. Those who are enthusiastically jumping on the pro-death bandwagon would do well to remember that at the time former dictator Pervez Musharraf started selling Pakistani ‘militants’ to the US, he, too, believed it to be a price worth paying.

But the stories from Gitmo, the ordeals of the families, the scores of innocent people, the excesses committed by the intelligence agencies, the plight of Baloch nationalists -- all these combined to create the greatest human rights scandal of contemporary Pakistan.

The reason common law prescribes a higher standard of proof -- beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt -- in criminal cases is to protect society from the fractures that will be caused by illegitimate exercise of power.

No civilised nation can afford the death of a single innocent citizen. While the reinstatement of the death penalty could, arguably, re-establish the Pakistani state’s monopoly over violence, it will erode the moral legitimacy of its power. And states and governments don’t survive such body blows.

Business as usual