Gilgit Balistan needs change says Pak HRCP
Pakistan illegally occupied parts of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. This led to a war between India and Pakistan. Till date, Pakistan refuses to acknowledge its perfidy in Kashmir. Instead, it continues to maintain an ambiguous status of the occupied territories. This is the position with respect to both parts of Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK), so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit Baltistan (GB). GB has remained in limbo for a long time since 1947 and continues to be an area under direct Pakistani control, despite several rounds of ‘elections’ and having in place a government and legislature with no teeth. Seen against this backdrop, recent developments including efforts by the Pakistan government to give it a provisional provincial status have remained unfulfilled, leaving the people discontented and discouraged.
Pakistan’s case is that this territory is under dispute and if it were to absorb it into Pakistan legally and constitutionally, it would violate the UN Resolutions. Due to the lack of defined status for the region, the government in Islamabad has for several decades completely ignored the people and their well being. A recent visit to GB by a high-profile Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) delegation, has called upon the government to address the “constitutional, political and economic deprivation” of the people of GB. The HRCP delegation comprised of Salima Hashmi, Muzaffar Hussain, Ghazi Salahuddin and Israruddin. During its five-day visit, the delegation spoke with political workers, rights activists, members of the legal fraternity and religious leadership who expressed their disappointment at the government’s failure to integrate GB with the rest of the country.
Political instability and uncertainty about the status of the region continues to plague the area and resultantly, the people are suffering. Faced with severe food and power shortages, the region’s citizens have for long been demanding a modicum of rights as enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution. The groups that the HRCP delegation consulted were of the view that GB should at least be granted a “provisional provincial status” or, as a last option, a system of governance, similar to that prevailing in AJK. Meanwhile, the Gilgit-Baltistan Council (GBC) members approached Federal PoK Affairs Minister Qamar Zaman Kairah to make the Council functional. They asked him to define the authority of the GBC and its rights till such time GB is made an interim province. Minister Kairah assured GBC members that an effective strategy would be prepared in cooperation with the Gilgit-Baltistan government and all other stakeholders.
Addressing a press conference at the press club in Gilgit, Ghazi Salahuddin said human rights situation had deteriorated in GB, with political workers, rights activists, lawyers and religious leaders expressing their disappointment at Islamabad’s failure to integrate GB with the rest of the country. Salahuddin said GB could not benefit fully from the China Pakistan Economic Corridor because of its disputed status. Significantly, the HRCP mission notes that imposition of the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (1997) in PoJK violated the human rights of the people of GB. The HRCP report states that the imposition of the Fourth Schedule in Gilgit-Baltistan is a violation of Human Rights.
Notably, Gilgit-Baltistan has added several dozen political workers, social activists and religious leaders to a watch-list called the Schedule IV, established under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. In March 2022, The Dawn reported that the high-level meeting chaired by GB Home Secretary decided that a watch would be kept on Fourth Schedulers. It was also decided that they would have to take permission from the local administration and police for moving from one district to another. Political leaders, who met the HRCP team, also suggested that GB be included in the electoral reform plan, which is to be introduced shortly.
The Mission was also concerned to learn that the victims of the 2010 Attabad Lake disaster had neither been compensated nor rehabilitated. The political leadership that met the HRCP team also demanded that GB be made part of the electoral reforms process being undertaken to ensure free and fair elections in this region. In addition, the fact that appointments to the higher judiciary are made by the prime minister puts a question mark over the independence, integrity and impartiality of the GB judiciary, eroding public confidence in the institution.
The HRCP fact-finding mission has prepared a report on the imposition of the Anti-Terror Act and Fourth Schedule in Gilgit-Baltistan.The HRCP Press Release issued after the visit expresses concern that freedom of expression and peaceful assembly remain under threat in GB. It states that rights campaigners, political workers and students continue to be charged under anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws, particularly Schedule IV. The Mission believes that the abolition of State Subject Rule has paved the way for exploitation of local natural resources by external private corporations and individuals not resident in GB. This has led to demographic changes in the region, to the consternation of residents, who also feel that GB is being excluded from development projects, primarily those being launched under CPEC.
Meanwhile, traders’ unions in PoJK have warned of a shutter down and wheel jam strike on 28th June against the worst load shedding due to which the normal life has been paralyzed. Earlier in May 2022, people in GB staged a protest in Skardu city against the administration over electricity shortage and power outages. According to the reports, the locals complained that they received hefty electricity bills despite frequent power outages. These frequent power cuts have paralyzed life in GB. Protesters have regularly come out on the streets and criticised the government. They argue that despite GB having abundant water resources and dams to generate sufficient electricity, the authorities were not doing anything to solve the electricity crisis. Thus, GB remains a mere tool in the hands of the power-brokers in Islamabad. The Army and ruling Party in power, often take advantage of GB’s weakness for its own purpose, both domestically and internationally. It is this situation that needs to change.