Professor Mohammed Ismail of the Pakistan NGOs Forum (PNF Pakistan), speaks to CIVICUS about the overall operating environment of civil society in Pakistan and the recent bills which severely curb civic space.
1. How would you describe the overall operating environment of civil society in Pakistan? Have you observed a noticeable shift in policy regarding the protection of HRDs and promotion of civil society space since PM Nawaz Sharif assumed office in June 2013.
Public perception about CSOs and their role changed with natural disasters of the past decade. Earthquakes, floods and the inevitable displacement of thousands of people necessitated a humanitarian response from CSOs, but also resulted in corrupt relations between CSOs and government agencies. With time, the government also tightened its control over CSOs, and organizations that advocate the protection of fundamental human rights were adversely affected.
Pakistani CSOs extensively cooperated with lawyers to restore judicial independence. Unfortunately, CSOs failed to take collective action to address pressing issues in Pakistan. Today, many NGOs and networks risk become irrelevant.
Nawaz Sharif’s neoliberal policies aim to increase industrial growth and attract foreign investment. While doing so Sharif fails to create space for a vibrant civil society in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif enacted numerous laws which restrict civic space since he came to power in 2013.
Right wing policies of Sharif’s government and his favorable stand against Islamic fundamentalists are encouraging him to take actions that oppress civil society in Pakistan. Imran Khan is also providing space for religious extremists and the Taliban in the Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where his party is in power.
Islamic fundamentalists are threating civic space as they continuously attack human rights defenders (HRDs). Many HRDs relocated to Islamabad from Peshawar as they feared their lives were under threat. International award-winning women rights activists Malala Yousafzai was not acknowledged by the Pakistani government; however NGOs from various political backgrounds gathered and paid their tributes to her. Malala was subject to a smear campaign in the social and electronic media where she was accused of being a “Jewish spy” and a “Western agent” attempting to destroy Pakistan and Islam. There is no doubt that the civic space for CSOs and HRDs are shrinking.
2. In July 2014 the government of Pakistan passed a series of bills affecting civil society including the Protection of Pakistan Bill, Protection of Pakistan Ordinance and the Regulation on Foreign Contributions Act. Can you tell us how these laws will affect civic space in Pakistan?
a. Protection of Pakistan Bills:
The bill provides legal ground for the military to arrest or murder individuals for national security, and is therefore in contradiction with fundamental human rights. There are numerous cases of missing persons, as people who are taken under custody by the army die during interrogation. The Pakistani military continues to exercise control over the Nawaz Sharif government and the Parliament.
b. Foreign Contribution Act:
The act allows the government to: (i) interfere in CSO operations, (ii) prohibit funding to CSOs –especially those that advocate fundamental human rights-, (iii) impede CSO operations in the name of national security, (iiii) break into CSO offices.
Also, the law does not institute a channel where CSOs can file complaints in case of misuse or abuse of the law. The government has also not consulted CSOs during the adoption of the law.
Many CSOs in Pakistan are registered under provincial laws. However, the current law regulates CSO affairs on the federal level and enables the federal government to arbitrarily intervene in CSO affairs. Therefore, the law does not only attempt to curb autonomy on the provincial level, but also gives broad discretionary powers to the Nawaz Sharif government on the federal level.
3. What measures have CSOs in Pakistan, including the Pakistan NGOs forum, taken to advocate for repeal of these laws and the creation of a more enabling environment for civil society in Pakistan?
PNF Pakistan, various CSOs and networks have started joint consultations to facilitate discussion on the new law and to develop a policy paper which can be used for advocacy purposes. The policy paper will be shared with the Pakistani government and the political parties in the Parliament. On July 21th, the first consultation meeting was held in Islamabad, and it was decided that further consultations should be held on the provincial and federal level.
4. How can regional international CSOs support civil society in Pakistan?
CSOs in Pakistan need urgent regional and international support. Regional and international CSOs can help by writing letters to Pakistani embassies in their respective countries, the Pakistani representatives in the UN, UN Secretary General, the UN Human Rights Council and the European Union. CSOs in Pakistan are threatened both by the Taliban and the government. Therefore, these letters should emphasize that the Pakistani government must provide support to CSOs instead of disenabling the environment they operate in.
Professor Ismail is the Secretary General of Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF Pakistan).
PNF Pakistan is composed of five CSO networks and has more than 5,000 members. The five networks which make up PNF Pakistan are based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pakhtunkhwa NGOs Ittehad), Baluchistan (Baluchistan NGOs Federation), Sindh (Sindh NGOs Federation), Punjab (Punjab NGOs Coordination Council) and Rawalpindi-Islamabad (Coalition of Rawalpindi, Islamabad NGOs).
The mission of PNF is to create an enabling environment for CSOs in Pakistan, and to advocate effective participation in decision-making and good governance. PNF Pakistan also monitors the implementation of development programmes.
The CSO coalitions that PNF Pakistan is composed of closely observe and monitor political, economic and social developments that adversely affect the environment which CSOs and activists operate in. PNF Pakistan promotes public interest as it actively fights against injustice and prejudices. Therefore, the platform addresses discriminatory practices, and advocates a culture of tolerance and dialogue.
The decision to establish PNF Pakistan came into being when the government decided to enact a draconian law which would restrict civic space in Pakistan. In order to take collective action against the restrictive civil society legislation CSOs decided to establish a platform to conduct consolidated advocacy activities. As CSOs from various parts of Pakistan were holding discussions to establish a platform, the government enacted the Social Welfare Agencies Control Act, which allowed the state to arbitrarily interfere in CSO operations. In order to collectively voice concern against consecutive restrictive laws, establishing PNF Pakistan became inevitable.