Pakistan and the NRO

Dr. Nazir Khaja | Arab News
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2009-12-14 03:00

The latest storm that is gathering on Pakistan's political horizon is that of the NRO or the National Reconciliation Ordinance. It should however be understood more properly as Pakistan's list of National Resources Offenders (NRO).

This instrument of enormous significance for Pakistan's future was created by US efforts to stabilize their chief ally President Musharraf's faltering regime by linking it with Benazir Bhutto's quest for return to power in Pakistan. The US' own strategic interest in this was to see a strong government in Pakistan which would help in Afghanistan and the US war on terror.

The amnesty that was issued by Musharraf in 2007 applied to all politicians and bureaucrats' accused of corruption and criminal charges between 1986 and 1999, the year Musharraf, as army chief, seized power. Backed by the US, the ordinance offered a blanket amnesty to about 8,000 people including Benazir. This allowed her to return from exile to Pakistan without facing the prospect of facing corruption charges, some of them politically motivated, against her. The list included the names of many other luminaries, politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen and also Benazir's husband and present President Asif Ali Zardari.

Despite all planning, the unforeseen happened. Benazir was killed upon her return. Musharraf had to step down due to loss of popular support because of his ill-advised meddling with the judiciary and the matter of appointment of the chief justice. The media whose freedom as never before was Musharraf's own contribution, became his worst enemy.

Benazir in her will nominated her husband Zardari to succeed her as party leader, paving the way for him to become the president after winning the election.

President Zardari who had earned a reputation as Mister 10% as a minister in Benazir's Cabinet in the past is immensely unpopular. He is widely viewed by Pakistanis as a symbol of the country's endemic corruption. He now finds himself fighting for his political life. The expiration of the amnesty or NRO this month has given the country's military, opposition parties and Zardari's critics in the Pakistani media an opportunity to maneuver for his ouster.

Everyone in Pakistan knows that the NRO list which has 8,000 names is only the tip of the iceberg as corruption runs much deeper in Pakistan and involves many who are hidden and protected. According to Transparency International, Pakistan has fallen to 139th position out of the list of 180 countries assessed for inherent corruption. This has become the Achilles Heal of Pakistan's culture.

Pakistan has been lacking in institutions that sustain a democracy. A system of checks and balances is essential for a functioning democracy. If the country is not protected from corruption, and if those who violate the country's institutions are not held accountable, then Pakistan will continue on its downward spiral.

So far in Pakistan's history, every political crisis and government failure has brought in military rule. Seeing that this time the army is unwilling to taking over and the government and political parties are weak and incapable of countering the present instability, it is time for the judiciary to assert itself. It has the responsibility to interpret and uphold the country's constitution and laws. Its track record judging from the various examples of its acquiescence during Pakistan's many political and judicial crises in the past, does not hold much promise. Yet one hopes that this time they will do what is right.

Given the current multifaceted crisis that Pakistan faces, the judiciary needs to take certain steps right now. It is they who are now on trial in the court of public opinion.

The judiciary must ensure the rule of law, transparency and accountability, which have been missing from Pakistan's rules of governance.

The public which came out in droves to support the judiciary expects that the judiciary acts now with courage and determination. A majority of people in Pakistan expects that the judiciary will take serious steps to establish the rule of law at all levels, crack down on corruption and end the culture of impunity and patronage. A thorough root-and-branch reform of the police and the judiciary itself is most needed.

The following fundamental steps need to be instituted

• Requiring all politicians regardless of their party affiliation or feudal/business connections to fully and more precisely declare their assets and the source.

• Ensuring that transparent and timely investigations are conducted of all allegations of harm to civilians and establish effective, responsive and equitable mechanisms of redress.

• Investigate crimes and abuses associated with government officials and hold them accountable.

• Oversee creation of a workable enforcement unit or empower an appropriate agency and give it the authority to levy fines that bite. An Ehtesab Commission was formed by a previous government which later got caught up in political squabbles and its authority was undermined.

• Also to help establish a larger enforcement unit with representation from the army, civil servants and legislature with more power to investigate and impose larger fines, the list of 8000 be given to special judicial commission for expeditious disposal. Refer the worst cases for prosecution.

The responsibility is huge but the threat to Pakistan is also immense. If the present inefficiencies persist in Pakistan's governance, worse will happen. The loot of national wealth by the politicians, the neorich, and the industrialists of Pakistan will continue. Further breakdown in law and order situation will lead to anarchy and increase in violence.

As for the people on the NRO list, there was a sense of relief at one time that the country was rid off them since many had even left the country. Now people talk of them returning to Pakistan.

- Dr. Nazir Khaja is the founder of the Council of Pakistan American Council (COPAA) based in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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