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DAWN Editorials – 20th December 2015

National crises and missing facts

ALL week, the first anniversary of the Army Public School attack rightly dominated the national discourse. Dec 16, 2014, was a day that not only shocked a nation, but galvanised a country too. The memory of the victims has been honoured by deploying the full resources of the state in the fight against the Taliban. But there remains a great deal about the APS attack itself that is unknown — and unacceptably so. Earlier this week, the Senate echoed with some of those concerns as senators called for the creation of an independent judicial commission to investigate the circumstances that made the APS attack possible. Some senators went further — and logically so — in calling for responsibility to be affixed for previous national disasters, from Kargil to the secession of East Pakistan. The US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad was mentioned as well. Each one of those events impacted national security in profound ways, but none of them have led to an open and fundamental inquiry that publicly established the facts and pursued accountability.

All too often, when accountability and national security are mentioned together, there is a tendency in some quarters to deflect the serious questions. The questions themselves are alleged to be unpatriotic or anti-institution. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inquiries properly done — transparently, independently and in a non-partisan manner — can shed light on everything from policy failures to operational issues. Inquiries make reforms possible and can help prevent catastrophes from being repeated. Inquiries are the sine qua non — the essential and indispensable ingredient — of democratic governance. Yet, the institutional aversion to accountability and transparency appears to dominate the true national interest here. A year on from the APS attack, precious few facts are publicly known, even though four individuals have already been executed after convictions in military courts for ties to the attack. The preferred public narrative of the state simply appears to be that the Taliban are savages who are being hunted in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations across the length and breadth of the country for their crimes against the state and society.

Yet, it was the sixth month of Operation Zarb-i-Azb when the APS attack occurred and the country’s intelligence, security and law-enforcement apparatuses were supposed to have been on the highest alert. What went wrong? When failures, lapses and oversights are identified, institutions can be strengthened. When errors are covered up, future catastrophes become more likely. The state is not, at least in its design, a benevolent overlord of a grateful people. State actions — and its inaction — must be open to public scrutiny and institutions must be amenable to reform. That alone will ensure the true safety and security of the Pakistani people. A year on from the APS attack, however, the unfiltered and unmitigated truth is yet to be publicly known.

Displaced by conflict

IN and of themselves, the numbers are shocking: nearly a million people have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in their bid to reach the shores of Europe, despite the uncertain, frequently hostile attitudes that await them. The number of people displaced by war and conflict has far surpassed 60 million since the beginning of this year — a record in human history; by the end of June, 20.2 million people were living as refugees worldwide; in the same period, at least five million people were newly displaced, including 839,000 who crossed borders. Averaged out, one in every 122 people on the planet has been forced to flee their home, the UNHCR pointed out in its Mid-Year Trends 2015 report, released on Friday. The report looks at worldwide displacement resulting from conflict and persecution. In his statement, the body’s chief António Guterres underscored the fact that these figures refer to only the first six months of the year. “We believe things will be much worse in the second six months,” he added.

Behind the statistics, of course, lies a world of desperation, pain and helplessness, much of it the result of the extended conflicts that have broken out and been left to fester in large swathes of the Middle East. Yet the world’s response, while positive in some quarters — for instance, Canada and Germany have taken in a number of refugees — has by and large been uncaring. Sadly enough, the latter category includes resource-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United States. As Mr Guterres pointed out, “never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything”. This is a basic reality, and ought to inspire citizens of the world and their governments to undertake some deep introspection in terms of addressing what is a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions. But in the long term, it is even more important for the world to come together, cooperate, and find ways to end the conflicts and instability that have caused large-scale displacements, whether relatively recent such as in Syria, or decades-long, as in the case of Afghanistan. The need for a global push towards this end has long been recognised in saner quarters; the predicament faced by such large numbers of people across the continents ought to constitute a clarion call for concerted action. No one flees their home — whether within the borders or beyond — by choice.

Phone service suspension

IN Pakistan, it is unfortunate that the state tends to address peripheral issues instead of tackling the root causes of this country’s problems. Take the case of Maulvi Abdul Aziz and his attempts to deliver the Friday sermon at Lal Masjid. While the controversial cleric has not been attending the mosque for the past year, he has been using technology — in the form of a mobile phone — to address his flock instead. To counter this, the administration has taken a rather bizarre step: mobile signals were suspended in parts of Islamabad on Friday for a few hours to prevent the cleric from delivering the sermon. This is apparently the third time the authorities have taken such a step. A government official confirmed that mobile signals were suspended on the interior ministry’s orders to counter the telephonic sermon.

While the state now, as a matter of routine, shuts down mobile services in various parts of the country during sensitive times, such as certain dates in Muharram or Rabi-ul-Awwal, to prevent acts of terrorism, the use of this tactic to prevent the Lal Masjid brigade from misusing the pulpit is questionable. For one, why should the people of the federal capital be deprived of mobile phone services on a regular basis simply to stop one man from stirring up trouble? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the administration to prevent a man, who has clear sympathies for militant outfits and whose name is on the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act, from indulging in public activities, such as delivering sermons through mobile phone, by other means? After all, Maulvi Aziz’s actions appear to violate elements of the National Action Plan, such as those calling for countering hate speech and extremist material, as well as banning the glorification of terrorism and militant organisations. Hence, instead of shutting down mobile services in Islamabad every week, the state must take legal action against Maulvi Aziz if it feels he is breaking the law.

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