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Of judicial commissions & democratic evolutions



By Imtiaz Gul

Express Tribune, July 29, 2015


Major Western democracies — despite many socio-political shortcomings, not alien to human society at large — stand out for continued democratic exercise and incessant accountability. Legal and institutional oversight of the government and parliament ensures preservation of and the respect for citizens’ fundamental rights — the yardstick for judging the performance of the various arms of government. It basically boils down to the rule of law and the respect for it — a basic prerequisite for instilling fear in the minds of violators and giving confidence to those who knock at the doors of courts for justice.

Enquiry into controversies, largely fearless adjudication, a usually unconditional acceptance (by contestants) of such verdicts and near certainty of punishment (where applicable) are some of the hallmarks of present-day democratic societies and systems that stand on and draw strength from a legal regime i.e., the rule of law.

This check and balance works as continued introspection to provide for course correction. These systems, evolved over decades, allow criticism and are open to correction as well.

One such example in the US, for instance, is the National Security Archive (NSA), which is a non-governmental, pro-transparency organisation and the leading non-profit user of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It is located at The George Washington University in Washington. Through the FOIA, the NSA has been releasing documents that relate even to the mighty US security establishment, including the CIA. Although most cases date back decades, yet the access to information does underscore the importance of institutions born out of the American Constitution. On July 20, the NSA managed to acquire and release files that document the often rough-and-tumble, behind-the-scenes dynamics between Congress and the executive branch during the “Year of Intelligence (1975-76)”, when a congressional committee was trying to investigate allegations and revelations of abuses of power and authority in the US intelligence community.

These documents show that the enquiry met with serious resistance by CIA officials who were worried that disclosures of agency operations would be “disastrous” for the CIA’s standing in the world: “We are a great power and it is important that we be perceived as such,” a memo to the president warned, urging that “our intelligence capability to a certain extent be cloaked in mystery and held in awe”.

Congressional and  Senate investigators have confronted more or less similar political and bureaucratic obstructions ever since they began assessing the intelligence community’s performance after the 9/11 attacks.

The NSA scored a similar victory on July 17, when a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the US Securities and Exchange Commission should release some 9,257 pages of records as part of an investigation of the body’s illegal payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a group responsible for egregious acts of violence during Colombia’s civil war.

Such cases demonstrate that state institutions remain under constant judicial scrutiny and that a citizens’ fundamental right i.e., access to information practically amounts to ‘right is might’ in these societies. Here in Pakistan, both the Imran Khan-led PTI and the civil society arepushing for upholding of fundamental rights, merit, transparency and institutional reform. Never before has the talk about these issues been louder. Never before were the voices for the reform of the electoral process so vociferous. There is no doubt that the PTI has led this reformist agenda, which resonates with a popular demand and is a need of the hour. The party must now learn to move on once it has made its point. In the US, nobody ever spoke again once the Supreme Court decided the fate of George W Bush’s election in 2000.

The PTI made a point, created popular ownership of the demand forenquiry into election manipulation, and underlined the need for electoral reforms. Since August 2014, Imran Khan has blundered on many a front and lost a fair amount of goodwill because of the march on the Prime Minister House in alliance with the maverick Tahirul Qadri. Pragmatism demands that Imran Khan and his cohorts move on in order to make a far greater positive contribution to democratic reforms and a better future for the teeming millions in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa and elsewhere. Rather than sinking themselves in a plethora of unnecessary nitpicking in a society that is hypocritical and corrupt to the core, and where because of pressures created by the PTI, the ruling elite are gradually, though reluctantly, embracing the ideals of the rule of law and transparency, the PTI would do better keeping up pressure for achieving its ideals. No so-called quick-fixes like the dharna please!

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk