Pakistan: Military Coup and Society


David Alton has argued in the House of Lords the importance of creating a more tolerant, plural and socially just society in Pakistan which is better able to accommodate its minorities.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene? Our argument is that it was not a democracy. It was a kleptocracy which was ripping millions of rupees away from the public exchequer.

Lord Paul: My Lords, yes, but is the answer a military coup? And what is the guarantee that the military men can solve those problems?

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One of the primary reasons for the international esteem in which Britain is held is our commitment to the rule of law, human rights and representative government. This is something about which every British citizen should feel proud. Your Lordships will forgive a personal, and perhaps emotional, note when I say that this is why I became a citizen of this country nearly 25 years ago and why I am happy that I did.

Millions of people everywhere look to Britain as a source of inspiration as they struggle to fulfil their democratic aspirations. We should never sacrifice this perception. The fact that we in this House accept the primacy of another place because it is an elected body testifies to our own endorsement of democratic principles.

On 20th April last year, in a debate on India and Pakistan, your Lordships may recall that I said that both these societies are capable of sustaining democratic systems of government. I also said that the most welcome contribution Britain can make in that region is to support and encourage democracy. Since then, developments in the political environment of the sub-continent make me even more convinced of this.

There is another practical consideration that I would like to share with your Lordships. Pakistan’s most urgent need today is for greater investment in its infrastructure. Given the abysmal rate of adult literacy–somewhere below 40 per cent–the expansion of education is a vital need. The country has one of the highest population growth rates in the region; about 2.7 per cent per year over the past decade. About 40 per cent of its population is currently below 15 years of age. Surely, all that suggests that social and economic development is a critical issue.

As we look across the experience of nations, there is little to give us confidence that military governments will address these priorities; they are usually preoccupied with increasing the size and firepower of the armed forces; and that, of course, creates another unhappy spill-over impact on regional development. Last month, I was in India and fortunate to meet the Prime Minister Vajpayee and his senior Cabinet colleagues. Their concern is that events across the border will compel India to increase its own defence expenditures at some cost to the national development process.

We now have, in Pakistan, the first known instance of nuclear weapons under direct control of the military. All other nuclear states have had the insulation of civilian control over the final decisions about their weapons. It is good that our foreign policy keeps these broader considerations in mind as it addresses that situation.

Let me say a word about corruption. The present regime in Pakistan, and even some people here, suggest that corruption was the downfall of previous Pakistan governments. Perhaps that is so. But there are two observations that I think are relevant. First, where is the evidence that dictatorships are less corrupt than democracies? Dictatorships may, in that infamous phrase,

    “make the trains run on time”.  

     

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But that they can transform or reduce corrupt politics into more honest politics is surely unproven. The answer to corruption is transparency, accountability and due process of law; to open up the system as much as possible rather than to constrict it.My other observation is this: we must of course strongly condemn corruption wherever it exists, in Pakistan or elsewhere. It eats at the heart of any society, particularly a society that has few resources and great developmental demands. But as we do so, let us make sure that economically developed countries do not, inadvertently or otherwise, facilitate corruption in other regions.

I have avoided Kashmir and the Indo/Pakistan conflict because, as has been said, perhaps it is for another day. In conclusion, the decline of democracy does not contribute to the decline of tensions anywhere. I strongly endorse government policy in that it stands for encouraging the people of Pakistan to make their own choices through the democratic process.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, from debates in your Lordships’ House and in another place, it is strikingly obvious just how many friends Pakistan has right across the political spectrum. For many years, one of the most consistent and reliable of those friends has been my noble friend Lord Weatherill. Anyone who has an interest in the affairs of Pakistan would do well to read his speech and attach proper weight to his remarks. The whole House is indebted to him for initiating today’s debate.

I want to comment on two things: first, the military coup; and, secondly, the importance of creating a more tolerant, plural and socially just society in Pakistan which is better able to accommodate its minorities.

Just before Christmas, I had the opportunity to visit the small West African country of Benin. In 1990 its military dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, whom I met during my visit, became the first African military leader voluntarily to surrender power. He felt sufficiently confident about the stability of the country to call elections in which he was a presidential candidate. He lost those elections, but a peaceful transition to democratic government nevertheless took place. It is perhaps worth commenting that five years later he stood as an independent candidate and was elected by the people in open and free elections. There is a lesson there for General Musharraf.

Notwithstanding the deeply unsatisfactory nature of the government of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s friends would surely wish to see, as the noble Lord, Lord Paul, said, the creation of democratic government in Pakistan at the earliest opportunity. I hope that when the Minister replies she will be able to tell us what progress General Sir Charles Guthrie was able to make last week during discussions with General Musharraf. I should be interested to know in particular whether in those discussions there was any debate about outstanding military sales.

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Echoing remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Paul, and others, we are aware of the military instability of the region and the problems of nuclear weapons. But some 80 outstanding licences are pending. I should be interested to know what the Government’s policy is towards implementing the sales that will go with the granting of those licences. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was right last week to say that we should suspend judgment. So perhaps it is also wise for us to suspend sales, at least for the time being.

I am not nai ve about the previous government. I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. When the Government were elected in 1997, the turn-out was about 32 per cent. There were many allegations of vote rigging. Holding an election does not necessarily make a country truly democratic, especially when the party of government then seeks to subvert any legitimate opposition, interfere with the judicial process and stifle hostile comment in the media. Nawaz Sharif undoubtedly did all those things. He may also have been the principal author of the events which led to his undoing. If the allegations are proven that he gave orders refusing permission for an aircraft carrying General Musharraf to land in south Karachi, that is not the action of a true democrat. No democratically elected leader would seek to kill the head of the armed forces.

A good test of an administration’s credentials is its human rights record. Sharif’s flirting with Taliban-inspired Sharia law did not bode well. Paradoxically, as we have heard during the debate, it is General Musharraf who has invited the world to judge him by his treatment of minorities and by the yardstick of tolerance.

In that respect, many of us hope that the new government will repeal the blasphemy laws. I associate myself wholeheartedly with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said. Since their introduction in 1986 as section 295C of the Pakistan penal code, the blasphemy laws have been used as a weapon against both the Ahmadi and the Christian minorities there. I have corresponded with the government of Pakistan about this matter. On two occasions I have led delegations to see ambassadors and ministers to press for reform of the laws. Last year, I heard first-hand here, at a meeting outside your Lordships’ House, from a group of Christians in Pakistan who came to give evidence of their systematic persecution.

In 1990 the federal court determined that the death penalty should be imposed on those said to be in breach of the blasphemy laws. That is an open invitation to any fanatical group to bear false witness. As we know, the consequences can be fatal. At least two Christians–Naimat Ahmer and Manzoor Masih–have been killed by fanatics because of false blasphemy accusations. Even those Christians who have eventually been acquitted have had to flee the country because of the threat to their lives.

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False accusations have, on occasion, sparked anti-Christian riots. On 6th February 1997, a mob of 30,000 rioters went on the rampage in the Punjab province, burning down homes, churches and shops belonging to Christians. The perpetrators of those events have never been brought to justice.

Blasphemy accusations are commonly used as a means of carrying out vendettas. In one case, Nelson Rahl, a stenographer at Rawalpindi general hospital, was arrested on 4th January 1997 and detained for allegedly burning some pages of the Holy Koran. He had been framed because of his refusal to participate in an embezzling scheme. Currently on bail, he and his family are in hiding because of threats to their lives.

Trials have frequently generated communal strife. On one famous occasion a mob erected a gallows outside a court where a blasphemy trial was taking place in an effort to intimidate the judicial authorities. Clearly, such actions and the existence of such laws impede the development of a more plural and tolerant society. Many of us hope for the early reform of those laws.

Later today, my noble friend Lord Sandwich will initiate a debate on contemporary slavery. Bonded labour continues to affect millions of people in Pakistan, India and Nepal. One submission to the United Nations estimates that some 20 million bonded labourers exist in Pakistan, of whom 8 million are children. In January 1999, Asma Jehangir, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, estimated that there were 50,000 bonded labourers in southern Shindh alone. In a separate study, Human Rights Watch estimated that 1.2 million children were involved in carpet weaving in Pakistan and that many of them were bonded. In 1993 the ILO World Labour Report described the problem of debt bondage as being among the worst in the world.

Although legislation prohibiting bonded labour has been enacted in Pakistan, too little has been done to identify, release and rehabilitate labourers and prosecute those responsible for using bonded labourers. When the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, replies, I hope that she will tell us what progress is being made with the programme initiated by the European Commission in 1996 which pledged one million dollars towards the release of bonded labourers. By last year there had been no releases. I wonder how political developments in Pakistan have affected the programme, whether it will continue, and what progress the Minister expects in seeing the buying out of bonded labourers.

On those issues of human rights and social justice, General Musharraf has the opportunity to make useful progress. Many of us echo the remarks made during the debate about the links we all have with members of the Pakistan community in Britain. While I was in another place, my constituency chairman supported me loyally over many years. He had come from Pakistan, and he is one of the holiest, most resolute, devout and tolerant men I have ever met. He is the trustee of the local mosque, fully part of our society, and continues to have a great love of the

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country from which he sprang. People like him, who are representative of the best traditions of democracy from Pakistan, will wish for the day when democracy is created again in that country. I believe that if General Musharraf tackles the kind of questions outlined in our debate today, it will pave the way for the creation of democracy in Pakistan. Friends of Pakistan from across the political spectrum hope that it will not be too long delayed.