Interview with Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Director, Human Rights Watch

In this interview, Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Director, Human Rights Watch, discusses the controversial US drone program in Pakistan, saying, “We don’t know what the drones are doing. We don’t know whether, in fact, they are hitting the right targets, or, for that matter, what those targets are, and what measures have been taken to ensure that civilians have been safeguarded.”

“It is time that all the parties involved in these strikes engaged in openness and answered the increasingly difficult questions that arise around the ethics and legality of these strikes,” he says, adding that the onus is on the US to prove that these strikes are minimizing civilian causalities and are compliant with international humanitarian law. In addition, he says the Pakistani military has a responsibility  to assist humanitarian observers in finding strike sites.

Mr. Hasan, who has worked at Human Rights Watch since 2003, also addresses in depth Pakistan’s harsh anti-terrorism legislation; the role of both traditional and social media in inciting violence; and the prospects for peace negotiations between the Pakistani government and non-state actors such as the Taliban, saying, “A peace without accountability is a peace that is bound to fail.”

The interview was conducted on October 18, 2011 by Ann Wright from the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Ann Wright (AW): We are here with Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan Director of Human Rights Watch. Thank you for taking the time to speak to the Global Observatory today.

Over the past decade, drone attacks have become the counter-terrorism weapon of choice for the United States. As someone currently living in Pakistan, can you comment on the impact of the strategy in the region, and in Pakistan in particular?

Ali Dayan Hasan (AH): Drone strikes are a very serious issue, certainly in Pakistan. For one, the strikes and the social impact of these strikes is a magnet for anti-Americanism, and feeds into the discourse of Taliban victimization, or rather local victimization by Western powers. That is certainly a fact.

Now, in terms of what the drone strikes are actually doing—it’s very difficult to say. The fact of the matter is that no independent groups have access to the Tribal Areas where these strikes are taking place. What happens is a strike takes place, and you get a claim—usually by the Pakistani military leaking it, or the CIA leaking it—which suggests X number of militants have been killed.

Equally, you get a counter-claim, from the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or local sympathizers that will argue that 3 men, X number of women and children, i.e., civilians, were killed in the strike. Now, the point is that either of these claims may be true, or both of them may be true. It is absolutely impossible to determine the authenticity—or lack thereof—of the claim. I would emphasize that while these strikes are taking place as part of a covert CIA program, the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani military are absolutely complicit in these strikes. After all, very many of these strikes occur because the Pakistani military provides ground intelligence on which they occur.

It is our view, however—and this is a view shared by the UN Rapporteur Philip Alston, and it is also certainly our view—that the onus is on the US given that there are persistent claims of civilian casualties. The onus is on the US as the perpetrating actor to clarify that such civilian casualties are not taking place, if they’re not taking place.

This is also, as I said before, a magnet for anti-Americanism, and the reason for that is very simple and straightforward. Because the US does not acknowledge this program, it compromises seriously the credibility of any US official that speaks on or about or in Pakistan. If you come in, and you are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and you cannot address the issue of the elephant in the room, whatever else you see has limited impact. This is a very, very serious issue.

Now, having said that, if drones are what they are meant to be—which is precision weapons—if these are precision weapons that target militants and successfully target them whilst minimizing civilian casualties, they are, in that sense, they would be IHL compliant weapons, i.e., international humanitarian law compliant weapons–weapons that minimize civilian casualties. But we don’t know what the drones are doing. We don’t know whether, in fact, they are hitting the right targets, or, for that matter, what those targets are, and what measures have been taken to ensure that civilians are safeguarded, and to what extent they have been safeguarded. This is not just a US problem; it is also incumbent upon the Pakistani military, which often takes journalists on junkets or tours of the Tribal Areas, aerial tours, where it shows them how it is combating the Taliban, for example.

The Pakistani military could, if it decided tomorrow, to take independent human rights monitors and give humanitarian agencies access–take them and show them where drone strikes have taken place. The same holds true of the US. Recently, a few months ago, there was this ludicrous claim leaked from sections of the US government that there had been no civilian casualties in drone strikes. Now, certainly we know that that is absolutely incorrect. The point is that the US is doing itself no favors by feeding into the hypocrisy of the Pakistani government, and the Pakistani military–it is doing them no favors either. It is time that all the parties involved in these strikes engaged in openness and answered the increasingly difficult questions that arise around the ethics and legality of these strikes.

AW: Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have been critical of Pakistan’s 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act, and have been outspoken against the growth of similar far-reaching counterterrorism laws in a number of countries following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Can you give us an idea of how much progress has been made in pressuring governments to reform these laws in Pakistan and in the region more generally?

AH: I can tell you that in Pakistan, if anything, the draconian Anti-Terrorism Act has been made progressively more draconian. Now, the irony of the situation, of course, is that the Anti-Terrorism Act allows for just about anybody to be charged with just about anything, and that is precisely what happens.

It is not really a law that is used against suspected terrorists. It is a law that is used against all manner of people for all manner of purposes. Under the military regime of General Musharraf, it was used against political opponents. To date, it is used by the Pakistani state against political opponents, nationalists in Baluchistan. It is used to settle property disputes. The Anti-Terrorism Act is used in all sorts of ways.

The interesting thing is that only a fraction of those apprehended or arrested for terrorism-related offenses are tried—if ever—under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Why is that? It is because counterterrorism in Pakistan occurs below the radar, it occurs in an extra-legal fashion. So you have a situation where, in the valley of Swat, where in 2009 the Pakistani military conducted a fairly successful operation, one that, certainly even by our standards, in the active phase of the operation minimized violations of international humanitarian law.

But since then, there are some 3000 Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects—Taliban suspects mostly—that have been held in illegal military detention. These individuals are in a legal black hole. They have not been tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act; they have not been processed under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Essentially, what ends up happening is that you have this draconian law, which is used as an instrument of coercion otherwise, and you have terror suspects who are never brought into the legal system at all. What you are doing is therefore creating a system of endemic lawlessness. There is no way that the Pakistani state can hope to establish its writ in the valley of Swat or elsewhere in a sustainable manner, if it does not extend the benefits of the rule of law, which is the first sign of a functional state to the people of Swat, who actually turned to the Taliban because there was a legal vacuum in the first place.

So, the point is that the Anti-Terrorism Act is bad, and it is misused.

AW: You said in an interview this April that segments of Pakistan’s media have played a role in inciting violence by expressing extreme nationalist and discriminatory views. As Pakistan Director at Human Rights Watch, how do you see the balance between the media’s rights to free expression and the control of inciting violence?

AH: I think free speech is indivisible, and the right to free speech cannot be compromised, and really free speech can only be combated with more free speech. I would certainly not propagate any kind of curbs on free speech. However, incitement to violence is a criminal offense, and those who incite violence, who incite murder–and there are very many of those in Pakistan–should be held accountable under the law.

What the Pakistani state has done is that it has sought to muzzle criticism. In the media it has, for example, sought to muzzle critique of abuses in counter-terrorism operations, of abuses by the military, and the intelligence agency the ISI. But it has allowed free reign to extremist groups that have fomented hatred, that have fomented violence, that have targeted members of society–vulnerable groups, whether it is women, or the poor, or religious minorities, or political figures who have spoken up for those vulnerable groups.

When that has happened, the state–which ought to use the full might of the law to end that incitement to violence to hold those accountable who incite violence and murder–has failed. That failure is what bothers me.

The media has equally been complicit in such activity, and where the media is complicit in incitement to violence, where it is complicit in incitement to murder, where this is documented, the media should not be above the law, as should no other sector of society.

I think that’s what it’s about; this is not about media freedom, it’s about criminality: how you are going to combat criminality and how you can’t be selective about combating criminality because it suits you, or you lack the will, or are too frightened, or are an ineffectual governing authority. That is not a valid excuse. It is the job of the state to take responsibility and enforce rights-respecting rule of law.

AW: Moving on to a different type of media, what role do you see social media playing in Pakistani society? Are youths in Pakistan using Facebook and Twitter to the same extent as their peers in other parts of the world, and are they using social media for political purposes?

AH: I think social media is increasingly important within the Pakistani context, but there is an important distinction between the use of social media, in, say, the Arab world during the Arab Spring, and in a place like Pakistan. Arabic is one of the languages of the Internet. Arabic is also the principal language of countries in the Arab world. Now, this is not the case in a country like Pakistan where there isn’t linguistic uniformity. And also, the capacity to communicate through the Internet is limited, because of limited software in the Urdu language, and limited awareness of the Latin script, which is used otherwise to do it.

However, Twitter certainly is something that is very, very useful. It’s a very useful medium. It is certainly something that many of us are using, and it is a great tool of quick information dissemination in real-time. Of course, because Pakistan is a quick learner in many ways, mediums like Twitter are also being used by people to spread an anti-rights agenda, to spread disinformation. You find a whole subculture of people on Twitter who refer to themselves as Twitter activists. Nobody knows who these people actually are, and they will use the language of human rights and the rule of law to actually spread anti-rights agendas to discredit bona fide human rights organizations.

So there is, in fact, very positive uses that you can put the social media to, and of course, equally you use it for propaganda, counter-uses that are necessarily not desirable.

AW: Finally, what are your views on the chances to achieve wider reconciliation in Pakistan? How can a new peaceful consensus be forged that includes all groups? In this context, how do you view the recent offer by the Pakistani Taliban to negotiate a peace deal with the Government of Pakistan?

AH: It is certainly my view, and it is the view of any human rights activist, that peace should be affected through a process of reconciliation. But that peace has to be affected in a rights-respecting manner. It cannot be affected at the cost of human rights. It cannot be affected by letting human rights abusers go scot free.

People who have committed abuses have to be held accountable for those abuses. If those are people within the Pakistani state, they should be held accountable; if they are non-state actors, such as the Taliban, or sections of the Taliban, they should be held accountable. The idea that you can affect a peace by turning a blind eye to rampant human rights abuse is a hoax. It is something ultimately that will backfire on those making the peace.

So, absolutely, there has to be of some kind of rapprochement in the Pakistan Afghanistan region. All stakeholders should be brought into the equation, but those within current Afghan government, the current Pakistani government, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, who have committed serious human rights abuses—in many instances which amount to war crimes—should be held accountable. A peace without accountability is a peace that is bound to fail.

AW: Thank you Mr. Hasan, for taking the time to speak with us today.