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PAKISTAN: Suspension from Commonwealth No Big Worry for Military

Muddassir Rizvi

ISLAMABAD, Nov 26 2003 (IPS) - Pakistan’s continued suspension from the 54-nation Commonwealth for failing to fully restore democracy four years after the coup by President Gen Pervez Musharraf is no cause for much concern for the military-backed government.

That is because its diplomatic and bilateral cooperation with key members of the organisation, particularly Britain, has strengthened especially in the ‘war on terrorism’ after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks.

Pakistan’s status has changed in the years since then. Just before the Commonwealth Summit in Durban in 1999, a week after the coup that ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, Islamabad feared permanent expulsion from the organisation.

The summit, however, only suspended its membership. Four years later, the Pakistani government says it is even optimistic in going to the Commonwealth Summit in December in Abuja, Nigeria.

“We are sure that the organisation will take into consideration Pakistan’s role in post-Sep. 11 world and try to integrate it to make its role more effective,” said Chaudhry Abdul Waheed, a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party.

Officially, the government says that the organisation has overstepped its mandate by maintaining Pakistan’s suspension even after the 2002 general elections. But opposition parties say this position exposes the real state of democracy in Pakistan.

“The fact is that the military in Pakistan is firmly in control. The October elections were just a façade to put in place a puppet government which practically has no powers,” said Taj Haider, information secretary of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party.

But to the military’s advantage is the fact that it has learned to exploit the post-Sep.11 compulsions of the United States and key allies like Britain that are engaged in war against international terrorism, earn more acceptance – and become a strategic ally of these powers.

Islamabad’s role in war against terror, especially in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led attacks in November 2001, has reduced the international community’s concern for the return of full democracy in Pakistan to mere rhetoric, critics say.

In fact, many say that Pakistan’s suspension from Commonwealth has become more of a cosmetic measure in the post-Sep. 11 world.

Some of their questions are: If the Commonwealth is so concerned about the dominance of military in politics, why did Britain welcome Musharraf earlier this summer as state guest? Why do Britain and other Commonwealth countries dole out generous financial support to Pakistan? Why cannot Commonwealth countries impose total sanctions on Pakistan until it fully restores democracy?

According to Afrasiyab Khattak, a former chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the international community cannot alienate Pakistan in the existing geo-strategic value.

“They are turning a blind eye to the encroachments of the military for now. The suspension from Commonwealth does not mean anything for the military-backed government unless it is linked with economic and diplomatic measures,” Khattak said.

According to Haider, the legal framework order (LGO) containing 29 amendments to the constitution that Musharraf imposed last year have practically handed over the powers of the state to the president, who is also the military chief.

“How could they say that there is democracy in Pakistan? People and their representatives have no control to determine their destiny and make decisions about issues that affect their lives,” he explained.

This is exactly the reason for which the Ministerial Action Group of Commonwealth retained Pakistan’s suspension at its meeting in New York in late September. The eight-minister group noted that the Pakistani parliament remained deadlocked over Musharraf’s constitutional amendments, which it said was a key obstacle for a full return to democracy.

Musharraf amended the constitution through the legal framework order just before the October 2002 poll.

Critics view the polls as putting in place what looks like a civilian government, but one weakened by the constitutional changes that gave Musharraf powers to sack the government, dismiss the assemblies, make appointment to all constitutional offices, including provincial governors, judges of higher judiciary and heads of armed services.

The order also envisaged the establishment of a supra-parliamentary National Security Council which will have the heads of three armed services as members, thus giving military a permanent role in politics.

The Musharraf-backed government refuses to seek parliamentary approval of the orders amending the constitution, while opposition parties reject them as unconstitutional. But negotiations between the government and the opposition over the order have yet to yield any results.

The Commonwealth’s ministerial group said that if these negotiations, especially on constitutional issues, are concluded successfully, Pakistan’s suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth should be lifted.

The ministerial group comprised the foreign ministers of Botswana, Malta, India, Bangladesh, Bahamas, Samoa, Nigeria and Australia.

Islamabad had linked its suspension from the Commonwealth to diplomatic gimmickry by its rival India, and called the group’s decision interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

“We regret this decision as democracy has been restored in Pakistan and democratic institutions are functional. The Commonwealth does not have the mandate to pronounce on the LFO. It should not try to micro-manage democracies,” said Masood Khan, spokesman for the country’s foreign office.

“Pakistan’s exclusion from this forum is also the Commonwealth’s loss,” Khan maintained.

But the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif Group, like other opposition parties, say that the Commonwealth ministerial group’s decision vindicates the position of pro-democratic forces in the country.

“If Pakistan’s foreign policy enjoyed the support of the people according to the 1973 Constitution, the Commonwealth would have certainly recognised Pakistan’s position,” said Siddiqul Farooq, spokesman for his party.

But officials in the foreign office explain that the impact of suspension from Commonwealth is “zero”, though they say that Pakistan would be able to play a more vibrant role in international affairs as part of the organisation.

“Our membership is more important for the Commonwealth in the changing global scenario, than for us. We have excellent bilateral relations with important Commonwealth countries,” said one official at the foreign office.

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