|While drone strikes are often unpopular, some Pakistanis in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been celebrating recently announced changes to punitive colonial era regulations [Reuters]
Along with the devastating drone strikes, the United States-led 'war on terror' in Afghanistan is bringing changes to punitive laws imposed by British colonialism on Pakistan’s Pashtun areas more than a century ago.
The Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) promulgated by the British in 1901 allows the Pakistan government to impose punitive fines on entire tribes or communities for culpable homicide or for refusing to hand over a fugitive.
So, when Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari made pro-democracy amendments to the FCR on August 12 and allowed political parties to function in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), it brought cheer to the strife-torn territory.
"These amendments are significant as hitherto the tribal people did not have the right to challenge any violation of their fundamental rights and political parties could not operate in the FATA," said lawmaker Akhunzada Muhammad Chittan.
The most important amendments to the FCR limit oppressive sections so that only the close male relatives of an offender is now liable to be arrested, rather than members of his entire tribe.
Further, female relatives and those above 65 years of age, or under 16, are now spared arrest under the collective responsibility principle.
Laws 'ignored civil rights'
Chittan and other FATA political leaders readily give credit to the war in Afghanistan for drawing attention to a set of anachronistic laws that ignored basic civil rights.
"The Afghan war and its repercussions on the bordering tribal areas of Pakistan were the stimulating force behind these amendments," Chittan, who represents the Bajaur agency of the FATA, said.
The FATA comprises seven agencies and six frontier regions, strung out along the mountainous border with Afghanistan and is populated by eight million people, most of them Pashtun tribesmen.
"Yes, the US-led war against terrorism has been supportive of the political and democratic reforms in the FATA because it wanted to defeat terrorism," agreed Munir Aurakzai, a lawmaker from the Orakzai agency.
Chittan said that although the US role in bringing about changes to the FCR was not visible, it is generally understood that Washington had a role in pushing them.
"Local tribal leaders as well as political authorities were averse to making these changes because of the fear that they would lose certain powers," Chittan said.
"The Afghan war has finally brought some fruit to the tribal areas as the Pakistan government was previously shying away from reforms in the volatile tribal areas.
"Now, no one can stop reforms in the FATA, which came under the international spotlight only because it turned into a sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants," Chittan said.
The British imposed the FCR on the Pashtun tribes partly because they followed codes of honour obliging them to give sanctuary to anyone seeking it.
This Pashtun code was exploited by Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders fleeing Afghanistan when that country was invaded by US and its allies in 2001.
When the militant leaders began building sanctuaries in FATA and other northwestern parts of Pakistan, US forces responded by sending in drones to bomb their bases. Since 2005 there have been 265 drone strikes, killing more than 2,561 people.
Washington’s interest in the development of the FATA became apparent in a White House report presented to US Congress on April 4 expressing concern that Islamabad did not appear to have a clear strategy on winning local support.
The White House report, a bi-annual affair, assesses the decade-old war in Afghanistan and monitors achievements and failures in the operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the FATA, including drone strikes.
The report, which also monitors operations carried out by the Pakistan army in the FATA against militants, was critical of the fact that there were no 'hold' and 'build' efforts to complement military action to make it durable and sustainable.
"As such there remains no clear path to defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the unprecedented and sustained deployment of over 147,000 forces," the White House report said.
Chittan said whether such reports have an effect or not, the Pakistan government appears to be finally convinced that without getting the FATA tribesmen involved in mainstream politics, terrorism cannot be defeated.
The seven tribal units under FATA are part of Pakistan, but have been assigned a secondary status and kept outside the jurisdiction of the higher courts.
Now, a 'FATA Tribunal' capable of enforcing fundamental rights has been put in place in the tribal areas by incorporating amendments, giving them powers similar to that of any high court in Pakistan.
Shahid Habib Said, an activist for the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: "We wanted the government to extend the jurisdiction of the superior courts to FATA, but the establishment of the FATA Tribunal is also welcome."
The FCR (since 1901) remained intact until 1996 when adult franchise was introduced to the FATA.
Even with the latest amendments, the FCR has repressive features. Administrative officers continue to exercise judicial powers in violation of Pakistan’s constitution which guarantees separation of the judiciary from the executive.
A version of thie article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.