20 January 2015 - Civil society in Pakistan, which already faces severe restrictions, is facing further threats to its freedom, following the horrific terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar last December.
CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN) and the Tribal NGOs Consortium (TNC) are dismayed at attempts to silence independent civil society groups who have been at the forefront of condemning religious extremism in Pakistan over the last decade. Despite civil society’s important role in promoting peace and tolerance, the government is planning to introduce a controversial foreign funding law, which will vest officials with excessive powers to control and suspend the activities of NGOs that rely on funds from international sources. It is expected that a draft bill (the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act 2015) will be submitted for government approval later this month.
“Civil society and the Pakistani state actually share a common objective in ending violence and promoting reconciliation in what is a volatile political climate. Instead of viewing civil society organisations as an enemy, the Pakistani state should instead see them as a vital ally,” said Mandeep Tiwana, Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS.
Current plans to introduce the proposed law on international funding in Pakistan follow a number of arbitrary restrictions imposed on civil society activities in 2014. In December last year, CIVICUS’ networks warned about official plans to cancel the registration of 3000 small-sized and mostly rights-based CSOs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the north-west province of Pakistan, known for violent clashes between the Taliban and the Pakistani army) after a senior official announced plans to impose stricter scrutiny on CSOs’ finances and operational procedures. In April 2014, Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with international aid organisations were unilaterally suspended putting several social development projects at risk.
“Freedom of association is protected by the Constitution of Pakistan but authorities are preventing us from exercising our most fundamental rights,” said Zar Ali Khan from the Tribal NGOs Consortium, a network of 100 rights-based civil society organisations operating in Pakistan’s north-west.
A number of prominent Pakistani human rights defenders are worried that some of the government’s efforts to combat terrorism will infringe on civil society’s basic freedoms and reduce its ability to challenge religious fundamentalism. In addition, civil society groups have expressed concerns about the legality of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 20 point plan to combat terrorism unveiled on 25 December 2014. The plan includes reinstating military courts to try terrorism suspects for a period of two years and reinstating the moratorium on the death penalty in terrorism related cases.
“We demand that the fight against terrorism is carried out in line with international human rights standards. Two wrongs don’t make a right,” said Taimur Kamal Coordinator of the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN).
CIVICUS, Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN) and the Tribal NGOs Consortium (TNC) urge the Government of Pakistan to see CSOs as partners in Pakistan’s anti-terrorism programmes and remove unwarranted restrictions on legitimate civil society activities.