Time to say sorry

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN his recent “neighbourhood diplomacy” which took him to Dhaka and Colombo, President Pervez Musharraf took a major step in his bid to muster support for Islamabad in the region. He expressed “regrets” at the “excesses” committed 31 years ago by the Pakistan Army in what was then East Pakistan.

Thus he emerges as an army general with the moral courage and dignity to concede the wrongs done by his predecessors, the power-hungry rulers of the day who unfortunately also happened to be men in uniform. Earlier in 2001, he had released the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report, which exposed the wrongdoings of those at the helm in 1971.

Such is the political power structure in Pakistan that no civilian government — there have been nine of them in the intervening 30 years — has found itself in a position to release this report or offer an apology for the 1971 carnage. Nawaz Sharif, it is claimed, tried to make amends during his visit to Dhaka in January 1998. But all he could get round to telling the Bangladesh leader, Hasina Wajed, was that the March 1971 action was “militarily and politically wrong” — more of a comment than an apology. But these words, if they were uttered at all, were said behind closed doors for they were not reported in the press.

It was left to the Women’s Action Forum to first admit publicly that excesses had been committed in 1971, and extend an apology in unequivocal terms to the women of Bangladesh. In its statement in March 1996, on the 25th independence anniversary of Bangladesh, WAF condemned the role played by the state in 1971. It spoke of the need to focus on the systematic violence against women, particularly mass rapes, and apologized to “the women of Bangladesh that they became the symbols and targets in the process of dishonouring and humiliating a people”.

There is a school of thought which strongly believes that the past should be buried, as Musharraf has also advised. One cannot quarrel with the logic of this view. But given the fact that the human psyche is shaped more by emotions than rationality, won’t the past be buried better if the wounds inflicted by history are allowed to heal and reconciliation takes place? That is why rulers who genuinely want to promote a culture of tolerance, justice and peace, try to channel the anger of the people into a cathartic process.

South Africa is an outstanding example. In 1994 Nelson Mandela managed the political transition to majority rule with sensitivity and humanism in his approach. In the process, he ensured that the seething anger and humiliation born of decades of ruthless and oppressive apartheid did not spill over to engulf the country in a racial bloodbath.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission before which the victims could appear initiated a process which absorbed their anger and bitterness, although this body didn’t have any judicial powers and could not indict anyone. But people like de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, tendered apologies for the crimes of apartheid.

This was not the first time that past wrongs were so addressed. There have been numerous examples of serious human rights violations being taken up retrospectively by impartial third parties. There were the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War and more recently The Hague tribunal trying the Serbian soldiers for war crimes in Bosnia.

The explosive issue of the “comfort women” — the women who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese soldiers in Korea during the Second World War — refuses to die down more than 57 years after the war ended. International women’s groups have brought it up repeatedly in spite of a blanket apology offered by Japan for the sufferings it caused to the people of Korea.

Admittedly, all these cases are of only the vanquished being brought to the dock while the victors have escaped indictment. But that does not detract from the gravity of the crime committed.

One can well ask if it is really necessary to reopen old wounds to bury the past? There are two aspects of the issue worth noting. First there are the political implications of the crisis of 1971. Secondly, there is the human rights dimension. Both are important and should not be swept under the carpet if history is not to repeat itself.

The East Pakistan crisis in 1971 had far-reaching political repercussions, the most significant of which was the break-up of the country. Strangely enough, not much research has been done on the consequences of the secession of Bangladesh for the geopolitics of South Asia, the economy of the region and the national politics of Pakistan itself.

Be that as it may, the break-up is irrevocable and it is in the interest of both countries that after the initial years of antipathy and bitterness, pragmatism has prevailed and they have come round to accepting the status quo. In fact, the bitterness of the past rapidly melts away when the regional balance of power requires them to join hands against India.

But no lessons seem to have been learnt in terms of domestic politics in Pakistan. Our unending political squabbles and failure to institute a stable democratic system testify to our failure to mature politically. Similarly, our refusal to address the human rights abuses of 1971 has not helped make our own society safe for our citizens where they can lead a life of dignity and honour. The promptness with which 51 civil society organizations in Pakistan responded to President Musharraf’s regrets in Dhaka is indicative of the sentiments of the people in respect of this issue. They apologized for “all the excesses and atrocities that were committed against civilians” which they described as “a violation of people’s human rights”.

It must be emphasized that the “regrets” President Musharraf expressed have profound implications for Pakistani society as well. It amounts to recognizing that state agencies are liable to be held answerable when they commit human rights violations.

In 1971 it was Bangladesh. Today it is Pakistan where the police continue to commit atrocities against the people — not on that scale but atrocities nevertheless.

The government never publicly recognizes this, let alone apologize for it. This is not a matter of semantics. The basic need is to start the process of healing and reconciliation within our own society too. You don’t have to set up a truth commission. But to cleanse the bitterness of the past, it is important that the truth about Bangladesh and our role in it is no longer hidden away or masked. The first steps have been taken. Now the time has come to let the truth be known to our children through the textbooks taught in schools and colleges.

The idea is not to denigrate the forces which were guilty of the crimes against humanity. The need is to teach our children the importance of tolerance, peace, justice and respect for human rights. Let them know that the treatment meted out to the people of then East Pakistan in 1971 was abhorrent to all civilized people.

There is also the need to teach these values to all members of our law enforcement agencies and armed forces who possess the capability, by virtue of their being armed, to use force against the civilian population. There is need to make them aware of the responsibility which goes with the power they enjoy. In fact, they should also be taught the relevant laws — national and international — so that they can be held accountable for violating them if they do.

We do not know if the academies and institutions which train the officers and jawans of our police and armed forces have courses which teach them about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the two human rights covenants (on civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights), convention against torture, Convention on the Elimination of all kinds of Discrimination against Women, convention on the rights of the child (it doesn’t matter if Pakistan is not a signatory to all of them) and the international law of war (embodied in numerous international agreements such as the Hague Regulations, the Geneva Protocol, the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide).

It is time those who become instrumental in committing human rights abuses are sensitized to these laws and conventions and taught their importance and warned of the consequences of violating these. They need to be told in clear terms that the dictum “all is fair in love and war” no longer holds true.