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Suspicion of Foreigners Leads to Rights Crackdown at Home

May 30, 1999|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is the author of a number of books on south Asian politics, including "Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan."

WASHINGTON — Tomorrow, the Pakistan Supreme Court takes up an extraordinary habeas corpus appeal for an internationally recognized journalist abducted by the government three weeks ago. It does so just as Pakistan's relations with its usual allies and donors, already frayed after nuclear tests last year and a recent crackdown on domestic dissent, are increasingly strained by policies that encourage human-rights abuse. With diplomatic leverage weakened by a long list of unresolved foreign-policy disputes and real differences in attitudes toward democratic development, the Supreme Court has become the last potential protector for Pakistan's citizens.

In one sense, this is as it should be: Domestic political conflicts are best settled through legitimate local institutions. But like many other struggling democracies, Pakistan has long shaped its politics when it thought to be developing biological weapons for use in after in response to a wide range of outside opinions, calibrating its policies to account for the interests of donors, investors and military suppliers. The strongly worded sentiments of the current government, which recently told Washington to abstain from commenting on its politics, belie a history of accommodation. Equally important, diplomatic choices appear to be diminishing: Weak relations with a weak state underscore the dangers of isolating a nuclear power, while undermining the prospects for constructive engagement. The resulting diplomatic confusion and political disarray carry grave risks for Pakistan and its citizens.

The Supreme Court meets in a fractious environment. Habituated to the efforts of past governments to use the judiciary as an instrument of partisan politics, it has crafted a cat-and-mouse approach to those in power by alternately asserting its authority and then appearing to relinquish it. This current case is no exception. The court has decided to rule broadly on the relationship between civilian and military rule, and thus on the future of democracy in Pakistan. If it succeeds and grants habeas corpus, civil rights will return to their proper place as the foundation of society. But if civil liberties continue to be jeopardized by a government intent on consolidating power, foreign governments may not be able protect them.

The recent assault on rights has been colored by Pakistan's profound discomfort with the outside world. This month, journalists have been threatened, persecuted, arrested and tortured for condemning the government in the presence of foreigners. Thousands of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, mostly small social-service groups filling needs the state has ignored, have been summarily banned and their workers maligned for publicly criticizing government policy or for taking foreign donations. Human-rights groups are accused of sedition and immorality.

Preaching intolerance in a land replete with guns and frustration has transformed xenophobia into public policy. Purporting to stem corruption, the government appears to be closing the door to foreign funds for NGOs that fall outside government control. Indeed, foreign ties seem to have become an official indicator of political incorrectness and foreign monies--International Monetary Fund and World Bank infusions to the federal budget notwithstanding--an excuse for government intrusion. Last week, the Economist magazine was banned for recommending that the IMF respond to free speech limits by placing conditions on its loans. Bit by bit, formal and informal leverage is waning.

Pakistan is celebrating the first anniversary of its 1998 nuclear tests by proclaiming its strength and independence, believing that declared nuclear capability projects its agenda on the international stage. But the world has shunned its dearest projects: Pakistan has been pressed to eschew its nuclear arsenal and extricate itself from Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistan has been pushed to lower the temperature in Kashmir, something that current tensions with India may preclude. Fears grow that political irresponsibility at home could translate into recklessness abroad.

The economy, immune to the ministrations of shortsighted fiscal policy, requires more engagement, not less. But when donors push for major economic reform, the government sees, probably correctly, global anticorruption efforts as attacks on its political practices. Indeed, the government's most sweeping ire has been directed toward a BBC team investigating official corruption. By rejecting real transparency and accountability, Pakistan consigns itself to the far reaches of a global economy that it should be eager to join.

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