Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistan's cabinet has approved a plan to introduce widespread political and administrative reforms to its tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, bringing landmark changes to an area that has long been a sanctuary for armed groups.
The changes, which include the extension of fundamental constitutional rights to citizens, will see Pakistan's constitution and penal code extended to the seven semi-autonomous tribal "agencies" for the first time since the country gained independence from the British in 1947.
"The time has now come for [the people of the tribal areas] to also be brought into the ambit of being Pakistani, to end the ongoing deprivation of their areas," said a statement issued by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's office on Thursday, following the cabinet meeting that approved the reforms.
The laws will give citizens access to fundamental rights and the ability to vote for representatives in provincial and local council elections, among other benefits.
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Currently, the northwestern region is governed under the British-era Frontier Crimes Regulation, a draconian law dating back to colonial times which leaves citizens with no recourse to formal courts and open to collective punishment for the crimes of members of their tribes.
The lack of formal law and writ of the state in the tribal areas made them a haven for armed groups, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda, for decades.
Pakistan's military regained control of North Waziristan - the last of the tribal areas still under Taliban control - after an offensive launched in mid-2014 that lasted until the end of 2016.
Since then, violence has dropped across the country, but sporadic high-profile attacks, such as the bombing of a shrine last month that killed 88 people, remain common.
Right to vote
Key among the reforms is a five-year plan that will see the tribal areas, home to more than four million people, merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, with citizens given the right to vote for representatives in the provincial assembly for the first time.
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On Thursday, Sartaj Aziz, who headed the government committee that prepared the reforms, said that citizens would be able to vote for provincial assembly seats in the next general election, scheduled for mid-2018.
The plan also envisages the holding of local council elections in each of the seven tribal areas by the end of 2017.
Previously, residents in the tribal areas could vote for representatives in the lower house of parliament. Yet laws passed by parliament had no validity in those areas.
The reforms package also proposes $1.05bn in funding be allocated to a 10-year plan aimed at rehabilitating and reconstructing infrastructure, including communications, power lines, water supply schemes, education and health facilities in the tribal areas.
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Government social welfare services such as hospitals and schools are virtually non-existent in most parts of the tribal areas, and have been further decimated by years of military operations.
At the peak of those operations, more than three million citizens from the tribal areas were classified as internally displaced (IDPs), living in camps or migrating to urban areas.
The new plan envisages the complete return of IDPs by April 30, 2017, Aziz said.
The reforms will also see the introduction of a new law to govern the tribal areas, based on the concept of "rewaaj", or tribal customs. That act will formalise the holding tribal councils, also known as jirgas, to resolve local disputes, according to a report on the reforms released by the government.
"We have sacrificed a lot for Pakistan and for years we haven't been given our basic rights," said Amad Khan, a citizen from the Bajaur tribal area.
"This reform will bring schools, colleges and a proper health system in our areas accessible to us. Even though it took years to be acknowledged by our country, we are thankful that it finally happened."
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Source: Al Jazeera News