Pakistan’s “Other” Insurgents Face IS

Balochistan Liberation Army commander Baloch Khan checks his rifle alongside his three escorts, somewhere in the Sarlat Mountains on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Balochistan Liberation Army commander Baloch Khan checks his rifle alongside his three escorts, somewhere in the Sarlat Mountains on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
SARLAT MOUNTAINS, Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Dec 24 2014 (IPS)

The media tend to portray Balochistan as “troubled”, or “restive”, but it would be more accurate to say that there´s actually a war going on in this part of the world.

Balochistan is the land of the Baloch, who today see their land divided by the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a vast swathe of land the size of France which boasts enormous deposits of gas, gold and copper, untapped sources of oil and uranium, as well as a thousand-kilometre coastline near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.

In August 1947, the Baloch from Pakistan declared independence, but nine months later the Pakistani army marched into Balochistan and annexed it, sparking an insurgency that has lasted, intermittently, to this day.

Now senior Baloch rebel commanders say that Islamabad is training Islamic State (IS) fighters in Pakistan´s southern province of Balochistan.

IPS met Baloch fighters at an undisclosed location in the Sarlat Mountains, a rocky massif, right on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and equidistant from two Taliban strongholds: Kandahar in south-eastern Afghanistan and Quetta in southwest Pakistan.”Today we speak of seven Baloch armed movements fighting for freedom but all share a common goal: independence for Balochistan” – Baloch Khan, commander of the Balochistan Liberation Army

The fighters claimed to have marched for twelve hours from their camp to meet this IPS reporter.

They are four: Baloch Khan, commander of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), and Mama, Hayder and Mohamed, his three escorts, who do not want to disclose their full names.

“This is an area of ​​high Taliban presence but they use their own routes and we stick to ours so we hardly ever come across them,” explains commander Khan, adding that he wants to make it clear from the beginning that the Baloch liberation movement is “at the antipodes of fundamentalism”.

“Today we speak of seven Baloch armed movements fighting for freedom but all share a common goal: independence for Balochistan,” says Khan. At 41, he has spent half of his life as a guerrilla fighter. “I joined as a student,” he recalls.

The senior commander refuses to disclose the number of fighters in the BLA’s ranks but he does say that they are deployed in 25 camps throughout “East Balochistan [under the control of Pakistan]”.

Khan admits parallelisms between his group and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also a “secular group fighting for their national rights,” as he puts it

“We feel very close to the Kurds. One could say they are our cousins, and their land is also stolen by their neighbours,” says the commander, referring to the common origin of Baloch and Kurds, and the division of the latter into four states: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Historically a nomadic people, the Baloch have had a moderate vision of Islam. However, Khan accuses Islamabad of pushing the conflict into a sectarian one.

The Baloch insurgent groups in Pakistan are markedly secular and share a common agenda focusing on the independence of Balochistan. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The Baloch insurgent groups in Pakistan are markedly secular and share a common agenda focusing on the independence of Balochistan. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

“Until 2000 not a single Shia was killed in Balochistan. Today Pakistan is funnelling all sorts of fundamentalist groups, many of them linked to the Taliban, into Balochistan, to quell the Baloch liberation movement,” claims the guerrilla fighter, adding that target killings and enforced disappearances are a common currency in his homeland.

The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a group advocating peaceful protest founded by some of the families of the disappeared, puts the number of people from Balochistan since 2000 at more than 19,000, although exact figures are impossible to verify because no independent investigation has yet been conducted.

However, in August this year, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on Pakistan’s government “to stop the deplorable practice of state agencies abducting hundreds of people throughout the country without providing information about their fate or whereabouts.”

Baloch insurgent groups, however, have also been accused of murdering civilians. In August 2013, the BLA took responsibility for the killing of 13 people after the two buses they were travelling in were stopped by fighters in Mach area, about 50km (31 miles) south-east of the provincial capital, Quetta.

Pakistani officials said they were civilians returning home to Punjab to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Commander Khan shares another version:

“There were 40 people in two buses. We arrested and investigated 25 of them and we finally executed 13, all of whom belonged to the Pakistani Security Forces,” assures Khan, lamenting that a majority of the foreign media “relies solely on Pakistani government official sources.”

Could an independence referendum like the one held in Scotland possibly help to unlock the Baloch conflict? Khan looks sceptical:

“Before such a step, we´d need to settle down both the national and geographic borders as many parts of our land lie in Sindh and Punjab – the neighbouring provinces. Besides, there´s a growing number of settlers and the army is in full control of the country, election processes included,” the commander claims bluntly.

Instead of a consultation, the rebel fighter openly asks for a full intervention, “not just moral support but also a military and economic intervention.”

“The civilised world should support us, not Pakistan. Why help a country that is struggling to feed fundamentalist groups across the world?” asks the guerrilla commander before he and his men resume the long way back to their base.

Balochistan and beyond

The meeting with the BLA leader was only possible via Afghanistan, because Pakistan’s south-western province remains a “no go” area due to a veto enforced by Islamabad.

“The province has the worst record in Pakistan for journalists being killed so local journalists usually censor themselves to avoid being harassed, jailed or worse. Meanwhile, foreigner journalists are deported if they try to access the area,” Ahmed Rashid, a best-selling Pakistani writer and renowned Central Asia commentator, who was an activist on behalf of Balochistan in his youth, told IPS.

The visa ban over this reporter after working undercover in the region was no hurdle to get the viewpoint of Allah Nazar, commander in chief of the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF).

Through a satellite phone, this former medical doctor from Quetta corroborates commander Khan´s statements on a “common goal for the entire Baloch insurgency movement”. He also endorses the BLA commander´s analysis of Islamabad’s alleged backing of fundamentalist groups.

“Pakistan is breeding fundamentalists to counter the Baloch nationalist movement but it has entirely failed. Now they are trying to use the instrument of religion in order to distract attention from the Baloch freedom movement,” Nazar explains from an unspecified location in Makran – southern Balochistan province – where the BLF has its strongholds.

According to the movement´s leader, such threat could well transcend the boundaries of this inhospitable region. Commander Nazar gave the coordinates of “at least four training camps” where members of the Islamic State would reportedly be receiving instruction before being transferred to the Middle East:

“There´s one is in Makran, and another one in Wadh, 990 and 315 km south of Quetta respectively,” says the guerrilla fighter. “A third one is in the Mishk area of Zehri – 200 km south of Quetta – and there are more than 100 armed men there: Arabs, Pashtuns, Punjabis and others who are based there with the help of Sardar Sanaullah Zehri [a local tribal leader]. The fourth camp is near Chiltan, in Quetta.”

Nazar adds that Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is “both activating and patronising the Islamic State.”

“The Islamic State is overwhelmingly present among us. They even throw pamphlets in our streets to advocate their view of Islam and get new recruits,” denounces Nazar.

In October 2014, six key Pakistani Taliban commanders, including the spokesman of Tehrik-e-Taliban – a Pakistan conglomerate of several Pakistani insurgent groups – announced their allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“IS is simply an upgraded version of the Talibans and finds sympathy with the ruling establishment in Pakistan,” human rights activist Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur told IPS.

Talpur, who has been challenged and attacked repeatedly for writing about such uncomfortable issues for Islamabad, claims that creating the Taliban is “the core of state policy which has not yet given up on this megalomaniacal scheme of Islam ruling the world.”

Despite repeated calls and e-mails, Pakistani officials refused to talk to IPS. However, the issue is seemingly a well-known secret after the Minister of Interior himself, Nisar Ali Khan, recently told Parliament that even in the naval base in Karachi –Pakistan´s main port and commercial city – there is support for the activities of radical religious groups.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

Pakistan’s Return to Death Penalty Contravenes International Treaties

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Dec 24 2014 (IPS)

Pakistan’s announcement that it has lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in response to the Dec. 16 attack on the Army Public School and College in Peshawar continues to draw severe criticism from human rights groups, which say that this contravenes international treaties signed by Pakistan.

“We are extremely concerned over the death penalty for Shafqat Hussain, who is likely to be among those facing execution by hanging,” Clive Stafford Smith, director of the UK-based rights group Reprieve, told IPS in an email interview.

Shafqat Hussain, then 14, was working as a watchman in Karachi when seven-year-old Umair Shah went missing from the neighbourhood in April 2004. A few days later, Umair’s family received calls from Hussain’s mobile phone demanding a ransom of Rs500, 000 (7,800 dollars) for the boy’s release, according to Hussain’s lawyers.“We are extremely concerned over the death penalty for Shafqat Hussain [convicted while still only 15 ], who is likely to be among those facing execution by hanging” – Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve

Police arrested Hussain, who admitted to kidnapping and killing Umair, whose body had been recovered from a nearby stream.

Stafford Smith said that Hussain later withdrew his confession because it had been made under duress, but an anti-terrorism court sentenced him to death although Hussain was only 15 at the time. He called for suspension of Hussain’s death penalty in view of the fact that Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Child, which prohibits the death penalty for children.

Amnesty International echoed similar concerns over Pakistan’s decision to resume the death penalty in response to the attack on the Army Public School and College which killed 148 – mostly children – and said that Hussain should have been tried in a juvenile court and not been given the death penalty, which cannot be imposed on minors in Pakistan.

Chiara Sangiorgio of Amnesty International said that Hussain’s case was not isolated because there were at least seven other death row prisoners who claimed to be under 18 when they committed their offences. Two had been convicted by anti-terrorism courts.

“The majority of people in Pakistan do not have a birth certificate, so it becomes very difficult for them to prove that they are juvenile … unless they have a good lawyer,” she said.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch pointed out that Hussain’s family had sent an appeal to the president to commute his sentence to life imprisonment, but to no avail. It deplored the fact that Hussain is now set to be executed after the lifting of moratorium.

On Dec. 24, the European Union (EU) also criticised the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty and called for its immediate reinstatement.

“We believe that the death penalty is not an effective tool in the fight against terrorism,” said EU envoy to Pakistan Lars-Gunnar Wigemark in a statement. “The EU remains opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and expresses hope that the moratorium will be re-established at the earliest.”

The government has already executed six convicted militants in Punjab province – on Dec. 19 and 21 – including those involved in attacks on former President General Pervez Musharraf in December 2003 and the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters in October 2009, as part of its announced policy to speed up execution of death row inmates.

On Dec. 21, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan announced that the government plans to execute about 500 prisoners on death row in the coming weeks as revenge for the death of schoolchildren in the Peshawar attack.

“Terrorists deserve no mercy as they are killing our people, soldiers and schoolchildren,” Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told a meeting of all political parties in Islamabad on Dec. 24. Come what may, we will go ahead with our plans of hanging the condemned prisoners, Sharif told the meeting.

Reprieve, which spearheads the anti-death penalty campaign, notes that Pakistan has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits execution and therefore Pakistan must reinstate the moratorium in fulfilment of its international commitment.

“Killing a man who was arrested as a juvenile and tortured into a ‘confession’ will not bring justice and will merely add to the tragedy of the Peshawar school attack,” Clive said.

Meanwhile, Sarah Belal of Justice Project Pakistan quoted Hussain’s older brother Gul Zaman as telling reporters outside  Karachi prison: “The authorities applying the death penalty to terrorists, no problem for me, but they’re going down the wrong road executing ordinary criminals.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

For Zimbabweans, Universal Education May be an Unattainable Goal

Primary school children like the ones pictured here in Zimbabwe's capital Harare often drop out of school, casting doubts on this Southern African nation's capacity to achieve universal primary education for all by December 2015. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Primary school children like the ones pictured here in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare often drop out of school, casting doubts on this Southern African nation’s capacity to achieve universal primary education for all by December 2015. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Dec 24 2014 (IPS)

Zimbabwe boasts of one of the highest rates of literacy across Africa but, but without free primary education, achieving universal primary education here may remain a pipe dream, educationists say.

It would also defeat Zimbabwe’s quest to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the deadline of 2015.

One of the MDGs requires countries the world over to achieve universal primary education by the end of 2015 and reintroduce free primary education. But more than 34 years after gaining independence from Britain, educationists say Zimbabwe is far from attaining universal primary education for all.

“Hordes of pupils enrolled in schools after independence at a time the Zimbabwean government made education free at primary school level,” Thabo Hlalo, a retired educationist from Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province, told IPS.“Without free primary education, school attendance has become intermittent, meaning that achieving universal primary education in line with the U.N. MDGs may remain imaginary for Zimbabwe” – Thabo Hlalo, retired educationist from Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province

”But now without free primary education, school attendance has become intermittent, meaning that achieving universal primary education in line with the U.N. MDGs may remain imaginary for Zimbabwe.”

At independence in 1980, the Zimbabwean government abolished all primary school tuition fees, but they have now crept in and crept up. Parents not only contend with fees that they cannot afford but also with expensive essentials like notebooks and uniforms.

Early this year, Zimbabwe reportedly approached the United Kingdom for funds to help cover fees for an estimated one million pupils who would otherwise be forced out of school. The cash-strapped government said it was unable to finance its Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), a scheme meant for poor children.

The U.K. government provided 10 million dollars from its Department for International Development but warned it may be the last contribution.

The school fees have been defended by Zimbabwe’s Education Minister Lazarus Dokora, who has gone on record as saying that parents who default on the fees should be taken to court.

Dokora’s “warning” comes despite the fact that at least 95 percent of Zimbabweans voted in a referendum in March last year to adopt a new Constitution expressly granting free primary education to all. Specifically, Section75 (1) (a) of the Zimbabwean Constitution provides for the right to state-funded basic education.

Despite this constitutional provision, it is still a sad story for many children like 9-year-old Tobias Chikota from Harare’s Caledonia informal settlement located about 30km south-east of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.

“I dropped out of school early this year because my unemployed parents couldn’t afford to pay my school feels,” Chikota, who at the time was in Primary Four, told IPS.

While it is a requirement for nations to ensure a predictable and adequate state budget allocation to education under the MDGs, civil society activists here say the Zimbabwean government seems way off the mark in terms of prioritising education.

“Despite the impending deadline for the attainment of the MDGs, our government has not been and remains inconsistent in its budgetary structures in practically directing money towards education, which may make the attainment of universal primary education for all difficult, if not impossible, by 2015,” Catherine Mukwapati, a civil society activist and director of the Youth Dialogue Action Network, a democracy lobby group in Zimbabwe, told IPS.

Earlier this year, the Zimbabwean government allocated 919 million dollars to the country’s education sector in its 2015 national budget announcement, but for Mukwapati these were “mere void commitments made on paper, hardly followed by action as customary with our government.

Through UNICEF’s Education Transition Fund (ETF), the Zimbabwean government distributed 13 million textbooks to 5,575 schools countrywide in 2010, resulting in each pupil in primary schools countrywide receiving a set of four basic textbooks.

In spite of this gesture, a 2012 report by Zimbabwe’s Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Education found that the country’s rural teachers are overwhelmed with work, operating at a ratio of one teacher to 60 pupils, far over the government-pegged teacher-pupil ratio of one to 40.

According to Save the Children, for over 3.2 million children enrolled in primary and secondary schools in Zimbabwe, there are only about 102,000 teachers.

A UNICEF report on the Status of Women’s and Children’s Rights in Zimbabwe released in 2012 says that at least 197,000 pupils drop out of primary schools each year, a situation that development experts here say hinders Zimbabwe from achieving universal primary education for all in line with the MDGs.

“School dropouts owing to lack of school fees, mostly at primary level, are peaking up annually and, therefore, talking about Zimbabwe achieving primary education for all by 2015 is a non-starter,” independent development expert Evans Dube told IPS.

And for many parents like 43-year-old Tambudzai Chihota, a widow whose six children are out of school due to non-payment of school fees, the promise of universal primary education means little.

“My children didn’t go beyond Grade [Primary] Five here because I had no money to pay their school fees and the universal primary education you talk about may not be my business as long as my children are still without access to further education,” Chihota told IPS.

The crisis facing the education system here has also been worsened by the flight of about 20,000 teachers from the country between 2007 and 2009 at the peak of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis.

Besides extremely low salaries, the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), a teachers’ trade union organisation in Zimbabwe, says that morale is low among teachers, negatively affecting the quality of the country’s education.

An average teacher earns 400 dollars a month, well below the poverty datum line of 511 dollars a month for an average family of five in this Southern African nation.

“Universal education may be far from being achieved here by 2015 due to poor teachers’ salaries, causing a deterioration of the quality of education,” Raymond Majongwe, Secretary General of PTUZ, told IPS.

With just over 12 months left before the deadline for achievement of the MDGs, it appears unlikely that Zimbabwe will meet the target of universal primary education for all.

(Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris)

Years in the Making, Arms Trade Treaty Enters into Force

A soldier stands over the weapons seized from four suspected members of Al Shabaab, the Islamic insurgent group, in Mogadishu, Somalia. The militants, all in their mid-twenties, were captured during joint security operation by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security services and were found in possession of a rocket-propelled grenade, two sub-machine guns and 84 rounds of ammunition. Credit: UN Photo/Stuart Price

A soldier stands over the weapons seized from four suspected members of Al Shabaab, the Islamic insurgent group, in Mogadishu, Somalia. The militants, all in their mid-twenties, were captured during joint security operation by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security services and were found in possession of a rocket-propelled grenade, two sub-machine guns and 84 rounds of ammunition. Credit: UN Photo/Stuart Price

By Lyndal Rowlands
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 24 2014 (IPS)

A new Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) beginning on Dec. 24 represents a historic moment in global efforts to keep weapons proliferation in check.

Nounou Booto Meeti, programme director at the Centre for Peace, Security and Armed Violence Prevention, told IPS that in her own home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the uncontrolled trade of arms has contributed to human rights violations including rape and the recruitment of child soldiers.”We’ve seen the Syrian government do horrendous things to their own civilians, and arms are continuing to go there, notably from Russia. That is a perfect modern case in point of what the ATT could stop if both of those countries were a part of it.” — Allison Pytlak from Control Arms

Meeti has actively campaigned for a global ATT, including advocating for the inclusion of a gender-based violence criterion.

The criterion is especially important for countries like the DRC where rape and sexual slavery has been used to systematically terrorise village after village.

Meeti emphasised that women, men and children are all affected by gender-based violence. In the DRC, when a village is attacked the men are often killed so that the women who are alive will not be able to defend themselves, she explained.

The Arms Trade Treaty, if implemented properly, will require states selling weapons to not only consider if the weapons are going to a country where there are systematic violations of human rights, including gender-based violence, but also how likely it is that those weapons will end up there through diversion from another country.

Meeti urged all countries to do their best to put the ATT into practice “so that we can see the reduction of armed violence, the reduction of armed conflict and the end of Gender-based violence.”

She said that it has taken a long time to get to this point because there are a lot of interests in the global arms trade, which is an industry that earns billions and billions of dollars primarily for a small group of arms producing countries.

She added that “the transparency within the ATT will influence the reduction of military expenses in favour of development.”

The proliferation of weapons in countries like the DRC and the free flow of weapons into the ‘wrong hands’ has been allowed to continue because of an almost complete lack of international regulation of the arms trade.

According to Amnesty International, there are more international laws regulating the trade of bananas than of weapons.

Meeti said that they had shown that there was no management of government stockpiles of weapons in the DRC, making it easy for arms to be diverted to the wrong hands. Porous borders meant that weapons could easily be brought in from any of the nine countries that share borders with the DRC.

She said that non-state actors also had ready unregulated access to arms, funded by the DRC’s vast resource wealth and international actors with interests in exploiting those resources.

Allison Pytlak from Control Arms told IPS that the ATT is “about introducing responsibility into the arms trade, not about trying to stop the trade of arms.”

The treaty also asks “all parties involved, especially the arms dealers, to think twice about where their weapons are going,” Pytlak said.

She said that the ATT aims to fix problems like states receiving weapons after they had stopped acting responsibly.

“Syria is a good example, we’ve seen the Syrian government do horrendous things to their own civilians, and arms are continuing to go there, notably from Russia. That is a perfect modern case in point of what the ATT could stop if both of those countries were a part of it,” Pytlak said.

Pytlak also said that weapons often end up in the ‘wrong hands’ through diversion, corrupt officials and theft from insecure government stockpiles.

“A lot of guns start out on the legal market and then end up on the illegal market,” she noted.

“By having export licensing officials who have a second thought about, where are these weapons really going to go? It looks a little bit unstable there, or there’s a history of diversion there, if they start thinking twice about that, the source might dry up and diversion will cease,” she said.

Only the first step

The Arms Trade Treaty covers everything from small arms and light weapons to warships, including battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, missiles and missile launchers. The treaty also covers ammunition and parts and components.

Millions of new weapons and 12 billion bullets are produced each year, while over 800 million guns already exist in the world.

The entering into force of the ATT on Wednesday with 61 ratifications and 130 signatures is only a small, albeit notable, step in the right direction.

Two thousand people die from armed violence every day. Armed violence is also fuelling the global refugee crisis, with over 26 million people around the world displaced due to conflict.

Arms affected countries are predominantly also lower income countries, and may struggle to implement the treaty.

Pytlak says that one current option being explored is the possibility of using Official Development Assistance (aid) to help lower income countries with the costs of implementing the treaty.

A new report from Chatham House says that the indirect impact of the arms trade on development includes the diversion of funds from healthcare to defence, increased unemployment and decreased educational opportunities.

In a statement Tuesday U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty as historic.

“Ultimately, it attests to our collective determination to reduce human suffering by preventing the transfer or diversion of weapons to areas afflicted by armed conflict and violence and to warlords, human rights abusers, terrorists and criminal organisations,” Ban said.

Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter: @lyndalrowlands

Edited by Kitty Stapp