Letter to Secretary Clinton: Uphold Human Rights Issues in Pakistan

January 11, 2011

Hillary R. Clinton
Secretary of State
United States Department of State
2201 C Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Clinton,

In advance of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Washington to honor the memory and contributions of Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, I would like to highlight Refugees International’s (RI) concerns regarding critical humanitarian and human rights issues in Pakistan and urge you to raise them during your bilateral discussions.

First, however, may I express RI’s deepest condolences for the sudden death of Ambassador Holbrooke. As chairman of the board of directors of RI from 1996-1999 and a member of the board for eleven years, Ambassador Holbrooke helped turn RI into a leading advocacy organization for displaced people.  He was an indefatigable advocate who tirelessly pressured tyrants, bureaucrats and military generals alike to bring an end to wars and displacement.  While the loss of Ambassador Holbrooke will be keenly felt, RI looks forward to continued work with the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

RI recognizes the complexity of, and sensitivities around, U.S. relations with Pakistan. Nonetheless, if the goal is to build stability in the region, the U.S. must publicly emphasize human rights and humanitarian issues. This includes publicly condemning human rights violations by Pakistani security forces and strengthening the civilian government’s ability to respond to the needs of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).  Addressing these issues is increasingly urgent as the U.S. appeals for more aggressive and expansive security operations in Pakistan against the Taliban, Al Qaeda militants, and their affiliates and while the Pakistani government struggles to aid the many victims of conflict and the recent devastating floods. RI has and will continue to support and applaud an increased U.S. focus on human rights in Pakistan as well as its global leadership in responding to the floods.

Since 2008 RI has brought to the attention of the U.S. government reports of military abuses like the forced enrollment of civilians into Lashkar militias, extrajudicial executions, and a failure to provide adequate warning for civilians to evacuate military targets before operations ensued. Inadequate warnings were then at times followed by indiscriminate bombings that resulted in civilian casualties. Further abuses by the military against IDPs have also been documented including preventing certain populations from accessing humanitarian aid.  Pakistani and international human rights organizations often document these abuses in secret and in fear. These issues should be a more visible priority for the Department of State in its diplomacy with Pakistan.

President Obama’s decision to discontinue aid to abusive military units, as reported by The New York Times on October 21, reflected a critical first step in elevating human rights and international humanitarian law in U.S. policy toward Pakistan.  RI is pleased with another New York Times report that the U.S. government has recognized the incommunicado detention of thousands of political separatists and alleged Taliban members by Pakistani security forces.  The State Department has also reported that it is making efforts to address the military's role in impeding access to conflict-affected IDPs by humanitarian organizations. Discussions of these issues, however, should no longer solely take place behind closed doors or as a result of press leaks, but should be part of U.S. public and private diplomacy.  

Pakistan’s military and security forces play a critical role in protecting the civilian population and confronting militants. The United States should support this role by publicly holding military units accountable for their actions. Similarly, the U.S. should publicly investigate any violations of international humanitarian law by U.S. forces.  Pakistani, U.S. and international analysts have expressed great concern that U.S. forces are acting indiscriminately in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa thereby triggering further discontent amongst the local Pakistani population. The U.S. government should report periodically to the public on the progress of Pakistan’s investigations into military abuses, the further discontinuation of U.S. aid to abusive units, and any violations by U.S. forces.

The United States must do more to strengthen civilian disaster management authorities at the local, provincial and national level. The military is still largely in control of the humanitarian response to conflict displaced people, but units assisting conflict victims may themselves be implicated in abuses.  Likewise, the military has used humanitarian assistance as a tool to advance military or political objectives. Until civilian authorities control conflict related humanitarian operations, more pressure must be put on the Pakistani government to end the obstruction of humanitarian aid and access by NGOs to certain displaced groups. Vice President Biden’s current visit to Pakistan indicates a welcome desire to strengthen the civilian government, but any U.S. aid package must go beyond mere development funding. To help Pakistani people who are struggling to access food, shelter and health care currently, the United States must make a strong commitment to support emergency humanitarian relief and shift humanitarian efforts to civilian authorities.

Until recently, the United States and other donors failed to adequately invest in developing Pakistan's civilian institutions to cope with the country’s many social and economic development challenges. Today the United States and other donors also need to increase attention to the potentially destabilizing factor of the country’s vulnerability to floods and other climate-related hazards, which last year resulted in 2,000 deaths and the massive destruction of agricultural land and public infrastructure. Many of the communities in Pakistan’s northwest initially terrorized by the Taliban were then displaced by military operations, and returned home only to lose everything to the floods. Overall the floods affected more than 18 million people and millions are still homeless.

In November 2010 RI reported that the woeful response by the civilian government to the floods and their devastating impact could increase political instability in Pakistan. The floods are likely to aggravate pre-existing tensions between rich and poor, between tribal factions, and between citizens and government authorities, as some local authorities manipulated aid to reach their constituents first. United Nations officials report this trend continues, particularly in Sindh province. 

Flood-affected communities now struggle with rising prices of basic commodities, and the continuing lack of appropriate food and shelter as well as the meddling of local politicians in relief aid. The United States must work urgently with the Pakistani government and international community to end the politicization of relief aid and to ensure that the reconstruction process does not reinforce pre-existing inequalities. Furthermore, increased international investments in disaster risk reduction would be in the long-term interest of donors and Pakistan given its high vulnerability to extreme climate events.

Should military operations intensify throughout Pakistan, more civilians will certainly be displaced and require assistance.  The humanitarian system in Pakistan is already severely underfunded and strained in meeting the needs of recent conflict and flood affected populations. The U.S. government should recognize that funding military operations require equal provisions for the people affected by war. In the spirit of Ambassador Holbrooke who made it a U.S. priority to address non-military concerns in Pakistan and to strengthen the civilian government, we urge you to raise these issues in your discussions with President Zardari.


Michel Gabaudan
Refugees International

Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Eric Schwartz Administrator, United States Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah
Assistant Administrator, Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, United States Agency for International Development, Nancy Lindborg
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