Pakistan's Institutions and Civil Society

Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer
Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, August 25, 2008; 3:53 PM


Pakistan's army and its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have long been on top of the power structure in the country. Through coups, support of militants, and interference in their neighboring countries' affairs, they have directly or indirectly held onto power and been at the center of decision making in the country since its creation in August 1947. Militant Islamic groups are the other powerful players, sometimes standing on the same side as the government, as in the case of jihadis trained and recruited to fight wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and sometimes against the government -- as with those fighting Pakistan's security forces today.

Pakistan has been in political turmoil since former army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup. Through two controversial votes, he remained president for almost nine years until he announced his resignation in August 2008. Experts say Musharraf's legacy has been a mixed one on fighting terrorism, economic reforms, and encouraging the growth of civil society. He started off with a reformist agenda, liberalizing the economy and the media, and going after militants in the tribal areas. However, his undemocratic moves in 2007 -- including a declaration of a state of emergency, and repression of judiciary and the media -- triggered wide-scale pro-democracy protests. In response to Musharraf's rule, the country's lawyers and civil society groups have emerged as important players in the power dynamics of a state traditionally dominated by the military.

Supreme Court and the Judiciary

The chief justice of the supreme court is appointed by the president. According to the Pakistani Constitution, the judiciary is separate from the executive and is set up as an independent authority to uphold the rule of law. The Supreme Court stands at the apex of the country's judicial systems; it has wide jurisdiction, which includes the ability to issue pronouncements on issues it considers of public importance with reference to the enforcement of any of the fundamental rights. These include the right to life and liberty, the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to fair trial, and the right to equality among others.

There is a high court in each of the four provinces, and there are other courts that exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction. Pakistan also has a Federal Shariat Court comprising eight Muslim judges, including a chief justice appointed by the president. Cases involving interpretation of Islam are referred to this court. Legal scholar Paula R. Newberg notes in her book, Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan, that Pakistan's courts and judges are cast as protectors of the constitution in a separation-of-powers system. In many circumstances, however, they have found it expedient or necessary to accommodate constitutional changes or unconstitutional maneuvers by Pakistan's leaders. They have done so either because they thought this was essential to their own survival or that of the state. On three occasions when military coups ousted democratically elected governments in the country, "the judiciary not only failed to check extra-constitutional regime change, but also endorsed and abetted the consolidation of illegally gained power," says a 2004 International Crisis Group (ICG) report. Newberg argues that over time, this has weakened the rule of law and given the government leeway for ever-more repressive action.

In November 2007, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and several other supreme court judges refused to sign Musharraf's decision to suspend the constitution and rule by decree. "This is unprecedented in Pakistan's history," says Hassan Abbas, research fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Abbas says Chaudhry, through his suo moto (acting on his own initiative) actions, has demanded greater accountability for bureaucrats, police, and even the intelligence agencies, something that was inconceivable in Pakistan before him. He also gained support of Pakistan's lawyers, who are one of the best networked communities in the country, able to reach deep into rural areas. But the ICG report writes that the executive "exercises control over the courts by using the system of judicial appointments, promotions and removals to ensure its allies fill key posts."

Civil Society Organizations

Civil society in Pakistan comprises nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations, think tanks, trade unions, cultural groups, and informal citizen organizations. In 2001, Civicus, an international alliance of civil society groups, described Pakistan's civil society as a "collection of incoherent voices, conflicting worldviews and opposing interests" characterized by "unresolved struggle between the practices and values of pre-capitalist society and new modes of social life, between authoritarian legacies, and democratic aspirations." According to the report, there are:

  • Ten thousand to twelve thousand active and registered NGOs in Pakistan. Of these, 59 percent are in Punjab province.
  • Up to sixty thousand NGOs if unregistered groups are counted.
  • Eight thousand trade unions.
  • Six different laws under which NGOs have to be registered.

Because the political space afforded to civil society organizations is limited, these organizations have limited impact on policymaking and implementation. But Abbas says they are increasingly emerging as an important group. "Every time there is a crackdown by government or the military, these activists are the first to be rounded up. This means the military is challenged by them," he says.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is one of the leading organizations fighting for human rights and democratic development in the country. It has loudly condemned the practices of the military and political parties. Hina Jilani, the UN secretary general's first special representative on human rights defenders in 2000, Asma Jahangir, UN special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission, and I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, are well-known names in Pakistan who have gained prominence in the international community. They derive power from their high international profiles and alliances to international civil-society organizations.

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