Twenty points, too few

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Rebecca Santana

There is, in times of moral crisis, a grace period. When Hans Breivik went on a shooting spree that killed 77, Norway turned to Prime Minister Stoltenberg. And when the Twin Towers sank in smoke, dozens of soppy op-eds went as far as comparing George Bush to Abe Lincoln.

Some rise to the occasion, others not so much: Mr. Stoltenberg told the world that evil would not be allowed to change Norwegian society. Vice President Dick Cheney did otherwise, cowering in a bunker while New York fell apart.

As our own grace period extends itself post-Peshawar, it’s clear which way the state is leaning. After an excess of conferences and committees, we were provided a National Action Plan involving Twenty Points, with 15 more committees formed to implement the said points.

But unwieldy bureaucracies aside, we realise another major impediment to any effective counter-terror policy: this government. Consider:

1) Execution of convicted terrorists will continue. Not a fresh point. Mr. Sharif had lifted the moratorium on hangings when he was elected. After being threatened by the Taliban, Mr. Sharif changed his mind, and restored the moratorium. Post-Peshawar, Mr. Sharif changed his mind again, and lifted the moratorium (again). The Taliban then threatened him again. Thus it took the state’s conscience about 19 months, and hundreds of bodies, to go back to square one.

2) Establishment of military courts for speedy trials, lasting two years. This is a fresh point, and what a disaster it is. Mr. Sharif has sought (or rather, acceded to) a military solution to a judicial problem that is, and will remain, entirely civilian. Whatever its two-year sunset clause, military courts will do nothing to build the civilians’ capacity to convict terrorists. And besides throwing due process out of the window, such courts have historically meant a horror house of excesses, which is what the Supreme Court’s landmark Mehram Ali judgment has guarded against. There is no doubting delay has crippled our legal system — but reforming our lower courts, not summary punishment, is the way forward. In any event, speedy trials have already been provided for in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 (just seven working days). But rather than order its strict procedure, or strengthen the old Special Courts, Mr. Sharif would rather amend the Constitution for ever less civilian oversight.

3) A commitment to ensure that no armed militias are allowed to function in the country. Not a fresh point. Mr. Sharif may as well have read out Article 256 of the Constitution prohibiting private armies.

4) Strengthening and activation of Nacta. During the Blair-Brown years, C.O.B.R.A. — Cabinet Office Briefing Room A — was Downing Street’s emergency council meant for ‘coordinating government agencies’, often skewered by the British press as an important-sounding waste of time, heavy on spin and light on substance. Nacta is a similar picture of high ambition and low dysfunction: it went an entire year without meeting once, its first full-time director was appointed seven weeks ago, and its staff keep getting sacked. The government has been calling for its ‘strengthening and activation’ since February, and looks to carry on doing so.

5) Countering hate speech and extremist material. Not a fresh point. Hate speech and extremist material is already punishable with up to eight years of rigorous imprisonment, and is rarely, if ever, enforced.

6) Choking financing for terrorists and terrorist organisations. Not a fresh point. July’s Anti-Terrorism Amendment specifically meant to provide for ‘seizure, freeze and detention’ of money and property that facilitates terror. But whether the Sharifs — Riyadh’s favourite exiles — will clamp down on terror’s wealthy Gulf financiers, remains to be seen. Mr. Sharif has been as likely to offend the Salafis as Mr. Zardari is likely to offend the Swiss.

Seven, nine, 15, and 18 — four points for skinning the same cat: tackling religious persecution, banned groups, militancy in Punjab, and sectarian terrorists.

One can pray the irony wasn’t lost on Mr. Sharif’s men. Having taken over in 2008, the P.M.L.N. has been the single biggest accessory to the recent rise of sectarianism in Punjab, since spreading to Balochistan. ‘Banned groups’ moonlight as electoral allies, while sickening acts are committed against Christians in Badami Bagh, Gojra, and Joseph Colony in full view of the Punjab government. The murder of Shia professionals has continued unabated in Lahore, as hundreds of Hazaras have been killed in Quetta.

And those very same sectarian charities were rallying behind the prime minister as late as August. If Islamabad is at all shamed by a support base that wishes to persecute even Muslims, it requires acting on these points without delay — according to a P.I.P.S. report, 23 banned groups are functioning under different names. As to protecting minorities, Justice Jillani’s landmark judgment has been in cold storage since July.

8) Establishing a dedicated counterterrorism force. Such a force is promised by May 31, 2015. Rather than more months and more men, it’s high time the state plowed its existing resources in the only force that should matter when it comes to urban terror: the police.

10) Registering and regulating madrassas. The state’s most commendable idea but, as far as planning is concerned, no more than an idea.

11 and 14) Ban on glorification of terrorism and terrorist organisations through media; measures against abusing the internet and social media for terrorism

We haven’t banned the Nawaz League Youth Wing, for celebrating sectarian groups. We haven’t banned media channels that air our citizens pledging allegiance to the IS. And unless ‘terrorism’ includes YouTube and pornography, we’ve yet to see changes in the P.T.A.’s internet policy.

Structural Problems 12, 16, 17, 19 — reforming Fata, cleaning up Karachi, empowering Balochistan, and dealing with Afghan refugees.

These are long-haul measures — some that go to the root of terror — and it is laudable they were included. But they are also hot-button topics promised by all manner of political parties, with the kind of fervour that doesn’t outlast election season. It is hoped the P.M.L.N. actually fleshes out these policies, and that their successors sustain them.

13) Dismantling communication networks of terrorist organisations. As of last week, the F.I.A. has launched a countrywide crackdown on illegal S.I.M.s, pushing Big Telecom to block 500,000 of them. That makes Point 13 among the few to have been commenced somewhat.

20) Revamping and reforming the criminal justice system, and sharing intelligence. A vagueness that may as well have been plugged in to round off 20.

In his address to the nation, the P.M. took the names of Peshawar’s children, again without naming their murderers, the Taliban. We hope that actions speak louder than words.