Obscuring Empire: A Critique of Amnesty International

January 9, 2013

By Akram Javed

[This article originally appeared on Tanqeed.]

Amnesty’s approach seeks to surgically extract the conflict in Pakistan from its broader geopolitical context.

Back in April 2012, Pakistan’s Parliament unanimously called on the United States to end its drone strikes in the country. The resolution was backed by the country’s powerful military apparatus. Nevertheless, the US has continued its drone strikes in Pakistan.

In effect, the US and Pakistan are in a state of war. But, it is a lopsided war, one where Pakistan’s people die in the thousands and Americans do not. It is also a rather strange war, because Pakistan’s military continues to aid the US war in what are called the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA).

Though drone strikes have gained the most attention in the media, the ground operations being conducted by the Pakistani Army are perhaps far more significant. There is very little information coming out of FATA, and it is very difficult for outsiders to get into the area. In my own experience, I have had to speak to so-called ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs), of whom there are millions in Pakistan, in order to get some sense of the conditions in the tribal areas.

Last year, I spoke to IDPs from Orakzai Agency who told me that the violence was unbearable. It was often hard to determine which armed group might hold authority over an area in a given time. The lack of clarity was dangerous; as a result, either the Taliban or the Pakistani Army (or both) could suspect people living there of being treacherous with obvious negative consequences for those people. In this back-and-forth, the actions of the Pakistani Army were not very different from those of militant groups.

They also pointed out how poor their living conditions were now that they had left their homes. Authorities outside of the tribal areas could arbitrarily arrest them on suspicion of terrorism and trap them in the grind of the Pakistani legal system without charges. To add insult to injury, they could not find jobs or steady sources of income, and instead, had to rely on inconsistent, photo-op hungry, international non-governmental organizations.

They felt ignored and neglected by the rest of Pakistan’s people.

In this context, a report issued by Amnesty International detailing the problems of the war in FATA is welcome news. The report documents how countless Pakistanis are being arbitrarily detained for indefinite periods of time, disappeared, tortured and murdered by the Pakistani Army. The report confirms that people outside of the tribal areas are also susceptible to arbitrary detention.

Amnesty’s report also notes that people are subject to the violence of the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups and calls on them to curtail their attacks on civilians. Importantly, it raises the fact that the legal regimes governing FATA, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) and similar legal frameworks—which are rather different from legal regimes in the rest of the country—facilitate impunity for state actors and prevent residents of FATA from the kinds of judicial recourse that are, at least in theory, available to other Pakistanis.

All of this exists in the context of an insurgency that began in 2002 when the Pakistani Taliban began asserting its control in FATA, the report suggests. Yet, within the context of this conflict, the report asserts that a “key driver” of human rights violations is the “legal wilderness” that exists in FATA. Pakistan’s government has “not only failed to address the absence of rule of law in the Tribal Areas, but fundamentally undermined it” through new regulations.

Yet, there are key issues missing in the report.

The report observes that in the “vacuum of authority” in FATA, the “USA has also carried out a program of so-called ‘targeted killings’ by pilotless drone aircraft that raises human rights concerns.” This is the only line in the 68-page report that refers to America. It’s as if, “legal wilderness” and the “vacuum of authority” in FATA cause drone attacks rather than American interests and American brutishness. Indeed, where the insurgency in FATA, as it now exists, is concerned, it began as a result of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and its subsequent prosecution of the ‘war on terror.’ But, for Amnesty, the causal arrow is reversed: it is a vacuum of authority—and not the insurgency that sprouted up in this particular form after America’s invasion—that somehow enables America to drone people in FATA.

Amnesty’s approach seeks to surgically extract the conflict in Pakistan from its broader geopolitical context: There is Pakistan. In Pakistan, there is FATA. In FATA, there is an insurgency. In the insurgency, the Taliban and militant groups are on one side, the Pakistani Army is on the other—and America makes a special guest appearance. In this isolated conflict, Amnesty unrolls a checklist of human rights and sees which ones are being violated: “legal framework,” check; “deaths in custody, extra-judicial executions,” check; “torture,” check; “enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention,” check.

But the Pakistani Army’s operations in FATA simply cannot be seen in isolation from the actions of the United States and from the war in Afghanistan, nor can they be seen in isolation from the history of American and other colonial interventions in the region.

The issue here is not only an insurgency somewhere in the remote areas of Pakistan, or the violations of human rights here and there that we can point to, isolate under a microscope, and zap away using a precision laser (or drone strike). The issue is the way in which the United States exercises its power on a global scale to preserve and further its interests. The problem is imperialism, which is not just a policy, but a system of global political economy and geopolitics.

That is, imperialism is a “key driver” of human rights violations.

Although Amnesty International, claims not to adhere to any political ideology, it has supported NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan—because it is supposedly good for women.

Of course, Pakistan’s rulers—military and civilian alike—have been violating human rights throughout Pakistan since the British left in 1947. In fact, they were doing it long before the British left. By labeling the tribal areas a place of “wilderness” Amnesty plays into stereotypical notions and the myth that the Pakistani Army and government are involved in some kind of civilizing or uplifting mission—not very different, one supposes, from America’s civilizing mission in Afghanistan.

Yet, Pakistan’s ruling classes have always been rapacious and extractive, looking to impose by force and coercion their rule when and where they are unable to persuade—in FATA, but also in Balochistan, Sindh, and wherever subordinated groups have opposed the rulers. This is not to argue that the Taliban represent a liberation movement, but that there are clearly a whole host of grievances and structural problems that make people throughout Pakistan angry and that will fuel insurgency and anger.

The question for those who truly care about human rights violations is about understanding the causes and contexts in which those violations exist. This must involve an analysis of imperialism and the ways in which it collaborates with local ruling classes. We must also look at the imperatives of ruling classes and what it means that they turn to violence time and again instead of actually addressing political, economic and social problems.

What we need is revolutionary analysis that points to the problem and revolutionary strategy that helps people understand how to solve it. We need less of the kind of human rights discourse that ultimately serves the interests of imperialism by trying to convince everybody that the devil does not exist.

Akram Javed has written for various publications including Viewpoint Online and The Platform.