Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament has passed a landmark constitutional amendment extending widespread political, administrative and human rights reforms to the country’s northwestern tribal areas, a region that had long been a sanctuary to armed groups.
The constitutional amendment, passed by the National Assembly in the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday, sees the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
It effectively abolishes draconian colonial-era regulations that the districts had been governed under for decades, making its five million citizens equal citizens of the Pakistani federation.
The amendment will now be presented to the upper house of Parliament and the KP provincial assembly, where it is expected to pass without fuss, before becoming law.
“We needed a national consensus on this issue, and it was achieved,” said Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi after the bill was passed.
“This is the start of a process, not the end of one. We need to gain the trust of the people of FATA, and that trust will not come just through words … but the biggest need right now is the lack of development in FATA needs to be addressed. […] We have to give the people of FATA the same schools, the same colleges, the same universities, the same hospitals, the same roads and the system as is available to everyone else in Pakistan. There should be no difference there.”
FATA, once the headquarters of the Pakistan Taliban and a sanctuary for al-Qaeda, has seen a series of Pakistani military operations launched since 2008 to retake the area from armed groups. The last such operation was launched in 2014, displacing the Taliban from the North Waziristan tribal district.
The United States and Afghanistan allege that Pakistan still provides sanctuary to armed groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, a charge that Pakistan denies.
Since Pakistan gained independence from the British in 1947, the country has continued to govern the seven tribal districts along its border with Afghanistan by direct rule from the capital, with each district ruled by a “Political Agent” (PA) appointed by the president.
The PA holds nearly absolute power in their tribal districts, where they are responsible for all government services, as well as serving judicial functions.
The constitutional amendment sees all seven districts merged into northwestern KP province, with political agents replaced by an accompanying extension of the provincial and federal government’s power to deliver government services, including healthcare, education and policing.
All Pakistani laws, including criminal and penal codes, have been extended to the tribal districts, which earlier were governed under colonial-era criminal regulations.
FATA’s five million citizens will also have access to fundamental rights under the Constitution, and will be able to vote for representatives in the provincial and national assemblies.
The amendment effectively abolishes the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a draconian British law that left citizens of the tribal areas with no recourse to courts and liable to be subjected to collective punishment for the crimes of tribe members.
Introducing reforms to FATA has long been a priority for the country’s government, led by the ruling PML-N party, which has lauded the passage of the constitutional amendment as a landmark achievement.
Thursday’s vote was the culmination of a legislative and consultative process that lasted more than two years. The government is due to complete its term by May 31, with the national and provincial assemblies to dissolve a day later, in advance of a general election in late July.
Last year, the federal cabinet passed a plan to introduce the reforms, but the passage of the constitutional amendment was held up by opposition parties.
Some parties, such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), demanded a more detailed plan from the government, while others, including the right-wing religious Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (F) (JUI-F) demanded a referendum on the issue.
On Thursday, the PPP and PTI voted for the amendment, which was prepared in consultation with the opposition, while the JUI-F opposed the move. It was passed by 229-1 votes in the 342-member house.
“It is very gratifying that this house has come together to finally end a colonial system … it was never acceptable that people in our country were second-class citizens, who … did not have the same rights as us,” said opposition PPP leader Naveed Qamar.
“The whole country will now be governed under the same rights and the same administrative systems.”
PTI chief Imran Khan, whose party rules KP province, made a rare appearance in parliament to vote for the amendment.
The constitutional reforms will be accompanied by an $865m package to 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.
Pakistan’s tribal areas consistently rank among the lowest on the country’s human development indicators, according to UNDP data.
Most districts remain bereft of basic services such as healthcare, schools, clean water supply and, cut off from the country’s mainstream, with no mobile phone service reception or internet availability.
The military operations, conducted over the last decade, forced most of the tribal areas’ five million residents to become internally displaced within Pakistan. Many have not resettled in their homes, given the lack of basic services, and continuing security operations and military deployments in the region.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Digital Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.