Repressed in Pakistan, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement marches on Geneva for rights

Participants in the Long March to Geneva came from across Europe to protest Pakistan's treatment of the surging Pashtun Tahafuz movement.
Members of the Pashtun diaspora in Europe posing outside the United Nations Office in Geneva earlier this month. (WNV/Aurangzeb Khan Zalmai)

While repression of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, or PTM, surges in Pakistan, members of the Pashtun diaspora in Europe and the United States are calling on international human rights organizations for justice. On July 1, hundreds of PTM supporters marched on the headquarters of the United Nations Office, or UNO, in Geneva, Switzerland, to protest Pakistan’s abuse of PTM leaders and activists. While in Geneva on an earlier occasion, they also brought their demands to the headquarters of the United Nations Human Rights Council, or UNHRC. Since Pakistan is one of its members for the 2018-2020 term, the council is a significant pressure point for PTM to target in order to force Pakistan into compliance with its international obligations.

The participants of what has come to be known as the Long March to Geneva included young Pashtun men and women, as well as the elderly, from countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and others across Europe. PTM Europe has a two-level engagement with institutions on the European continent: First, it is engaged with the European Union and secondly with international organizations such as the UNO and UNHRC. They urge the European Union to use its political, diplomatic and economic instruments to pressure Pakistan to end the persecution of Pashtuns. Engagement with the international human rights organizations is to name and shame Pakistan for violations of international human rights law. The goal of this mobilization is unmistakable: The protection of Pashtuns.

Pakistan blames PTM for anti-state “subversive” activities outside the country, such as the Long March to Geneva. It resents the group’s internationalization of the problem that could be resolved at home, as goes the state’s claim. The PTM, on the other hand, alleges that the state intends, by hook or by crook, to quell the movement. The PTM’s engagement with the European and international organizations has increased since space for dissent has shrunk at home. In recent months, the state institutions, especially the army and its spy agencies, have threatened and arrested key PTM leaders. University professors and civil society members who support PTM are being threatened. To borrow Scholars At Risk Board Chair Catharine Stimpson’s words, “They clamp mouthcuffs on academics, censor scholarship, and punish dissent.” According to the 2018 Free to Think Report of the SAR Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, university students have experienced prosecution and imprisonment by authorities.  On October 23, 2017, the Islamabad police arrested 70 Quaid-e-Azam University students, “for their participation in an ongoing strike over university fees, facility improvements, corruption, and the expulsion of fellow students in connection with their expressive activities.”

The state-controlled media has boycotted coverage of PTM’s activities and interviews with the group’s leaders. Whatever press the movement has got has worked to the detriment of its very legitimacy and survival. To make matters worse, on May 27th, 2019, the security forces opened fire on unarmed PTM protestors in the Khar Qamar area of North Waziristan along the Afghan border in which 20 people were killed and scores were injured. Amnesty International in a report urged Pakistan to investigate these killings. On May 23rd, 2019, The World Alliance for Citizen Participation in a letter to the Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr. Shireen Mazari showed deep concerns regarding civic space violations against PTM, including the disruption of protests and arrest of protesters; unlawful killing; judicial harassment and threats against activists; restrictions on media coverage and international obligations.

The key demands of the Long March to Geneva included the fundamental points of PTM, such as the arrest of the fugitive police officer Rao Anwar, who is accused of 444 extrajudicial murders; an investigation of enforced disappearances, elimination of checkpoints and removal of landmines in Waziristan. Added to this list were the investigation of the Khar Qamar massacre, the production orders of PTM leaders and elected parliamentarians Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar and the release of several other prominent activists. The participants demanded the establishment of an international inquiry commission under the UN’s auspices to “investigate the circumstances and name the culprits who ordered firing and those who executed this barbaric act, resulting in the killing and injuring of innocent Pashtuns.” They condemned the “abduction and torture of Qayum Utmankhel, a PTM leader and eye-witness of the killing of Arman Loni by a police officer Atta-ur-Rehman in Loralai, Balochistan. The Military Intelligence services of Pakistan are systematically harassing, abducting, and torturing those who have registered First Information Report against the said police officer, and pressuring them to abandon the case against him and cover the involvement of the state of  Pakistan in this heinous crime.”

The protestors also requested “the release of Alam Zeb Mehsud, a focal person of the PTM for documenting enforced disappearances and highlighting the plight of victims of landmines in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Keeping in mind the dismal track-record of Pakistani law enforcement agencies, particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence, which is involved in this arrest, we are concerned about the physical and mental safety of Mr. Mehsud. We strongly believe that Human rights defenders and civil society should be able to express their opinion freely and dissent without fear of reprisal.”  PTM also demands the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission under the auspices of the United Nations to investigate the crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity against Pashtun by Pakistan army and non-state actors such as the Taliban.  

Other demands of the long march included control over the land and resources of the Pashtuns and international pressure against “Pakistan to stop supporting, funding and promoting terrorist organizations on both sides of the imposed Durand Line, responsible for the abduction, torture and killing of Pashtun tribal elders and ordinary people.” Due to a prior engagement with the international human rights bodies, on June 4th 2019, the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights on behalf of its Chief Ms. Michele Bachelet issued a letter to the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan stating its “deep concern regarding recent threats and attacks against human rights defenders associated with the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and the violence in encounters between security services and members of the PTM that has resulted in a number of deaths and injuries”.

The letter categorically stated, “We understand the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is a nonviolent advocacy effort started by young Pashtuns following the extra-judicial killing of a young un-armed Pashtun man (Naqeebullah Mehsud) by police in Karachi in early 2018. These young men and women are asking for ending of military checkpoints and the clearance of landmines in Pashtun areas, and they are calling for accountability for extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances committed in the past decades.” Furthermore, the letter stated, “We believe the demands of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement warrant attention. We trust your government will investigate the killings, detentions and other actions taken against members of this group.”

In a telephone interview, protest participant Aimal Khattak — a Pashtun rights activist and son of the great Pashtun poet and nationalist Ajmal Khattak — said that he hopes such activities will bring the European and international human rights protection machinery into action. He also said he hopes that the United Nations will take further notice of the Pashtun problem soon. The state also objects to the participation of Afghans in PTM gatherings abroad. There is no doubt that Afghans participate in large numbers in these protests, but all these activities take place under the banner of PTM, which is a peaceful and nonviolent movement for the rights of Pashtuns in Pakistan. The PTM leadership has said in very clear terms time and again that their struggle is within the bounds of Pakistan’s constitution. There is nothing subversive, whatsoever, about the challenge’s demands and activities within and outside Pakistan.

Some skeptics ask why PTM supporters raise the slogan “larawbar Yao Afghan” at protests. While it means”Afghans or Pashtuns in afar (Pakistan) and in the highland (Afghanistan) are one,” critics interpret it as a sign that PTM is a Pashtun ethnonationalist movement seeking a separate state for the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan, popularly known as Greater Pashtunistan. There were undoubtedly moments in the history of the Pashtun political struggle when this was a goal, but it is no longer the case. At least, it is not among the goals of the PTM.

However, PTM stresses that Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan are one by blood even if they live in two separate and artificially created geographies. To Pashtuns on both sides of the border, their ethnic affinity is invulnerable to any amount of ruthlessness and political machinations. Any harm to Pashtuns in Pakistan is conceived by Pashtuns in Afghanistan as a harm of their own and vice versa. The participation of Afghans in these protests is based on ethnic affiliation and solidarity rather than nefarious designs that some in Pakistan attribute to the PTM. The empathy of the Afghans is also out of concern for human rights. There should not be a problem with showing solidarity with a fellow human in distress. This is precisely what the Afghans are doing with their sisters and brothers in blood and humanity. Finally, the Long March to Geneva as a way of mobilizing internationally is a strategy that most social challenges under severe repression in their home countries choose for survival. The European Union and the United Nations should take notice of the PTM’s demands made in Geneva before it is too late.

This story was produced by International Institute for Peace

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