In The News

Working toward Peace and Security in Pakistan

June 10, 2009

The deteriorating law and order situation in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan Province is Pakistan’s most urgent problem. A new kind of war waged by extremist elements using suicide bombings, targeted attacks – and the takeover of strategic areas – has shaken the entire nation. Here, the militants are increasingly posing a formidable challenge to Pakistan and its law enforcement.

The recent surge in conflict and violence in these provinces – and in Afghanistan – mainly stems from the Taliban phenomenon. For this, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to blame each other, causing tremendous strain between the neighboring countries. Recently, on the Pakistan side, the Taliban has transcended the ungoverned tribal areas on the border and moved into the “settled,” picturesque Swat Valley of the NWFP. The militants successfully challenged the government’s writ in Swat, violating a peace deal with the Pakistani government, and then made their expansionist designs evident by moving into adjoining districts down the hills and into the plains. An alarmed Pakistani government launched a military offensive in the occupied areas at the end of April 2009. The fallout of this has been the displacement of over two million people.

Supported by the firepower of modern and sophisticated weaponry, these militants have introduced their own brand of religious extremism and promises of implementing Shari’a (Islamic law). According to many analysts, the Taliban’s initial success in winning the hearts and minds of some residents of NWFP – and especially the residents of the Swat Valley – was because of the difficulty the state has been experiencing in providing timely and effective justice, among other basic benefits of democracy. The justice system in Pakistan is generally perceived as inaccessible, slow, and favoring those with money and power. In addition, police work is hampered by the administrative burden of channeling cases through the courts, which can take years. Militants in the NWFP pointed to these systemic weaknesses to challenge democracy in general – and the recently-elected democratic government in particular.

Addressing issues related to conflict resolution and justice is central to confronting the underlying problems in troubled areas of Pakistan. Significant areas of the NWFP and Balochistan, particularly the regions on the border with Afghanistan, have maintained very strong traditional societies. These societies govern by age-old institutions such as the hujra and jirga through which issues are identified, deliberated upon, and resolved. These jirgas are mandated to resolve disputes and conflicts within the tribal code of norms and to maintain overall peace; decisions of the jirga are considered to be binding on all parties.

In order to strengthen and enhance the work of these traditional justice mechanisms, in 2008, The Asia Foundation – in cooperation with the NWFP police force and a Peshawar-based NGO, Just Peace International – piloted a project to test Alternative Dispute Resolution concepts and mechanisms in two districts of the NWFP. The idea was to fortify community-based dispute and conflict resolution with Alternative Dispute Resolution tools and, especially, “restorative justice” practices that channel cases away from the courts, reduce the administrative burden on the police force, and help traditional forums render more effective and timely justice.

In a recent meeting with police officials, we found that the success rate in currently unresolved cases through use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms were reported to be in the range of 25-50 percent. The nature of cases resolved with these newly-learned tools and principles vary between Peshawar and Abbottabad districts. Cases resolved in rural settings tend to relate to issues of family, marriage, and disputes relating to land and property. Cases resolved in urban areas included disputes relating to traffic accidents and ownership disputes over commercial and residential facilities.

Both Musalihat committee members (conciliatory committees established under the project) and police personnel in police stations reported a change in their attitude and an enhanced ability to solve problems through skills gained in trainings under the ADR project.

This year, the Foundation expanded the initiative to five additional districts of the NWFP and the project now includes a focus on building community awareness. During the pilot project’s implementation, we learned that the majority of people are not aware of the presence of dispute resolution and mediation facilities present in the country. The project now aims to address both the demand and the supply factors for maintaining peace and security through two broad objectives. First, to increase citizens’ knowledge of and participation in community dispute resolution through public awareness. And second, to enhance the Pakistani government’s ability to facilitate the peaceful resolution of conflict by strengthening community dispute resolution mechanisms. The project is also assisting civil society organizations and the government to help communities realize maximum human potential in an environment of peace, justice, and dignity.

A second project in Balochistan related to Community Policing has similar objectives and elements. Formal police services have just recently been introduced in most of Balochistan, so this initiative focuses on overcoming citizen distrust of the new law enforcement. The project aims to establish or revitalize institutions for citizen-police engagement, which was envisioned in the Police Order of 2002 and the Local Government Ordinance of 2001. These institutions were envisaged to provide a bridge between the people and the police force for joint planning, implementation, and monitoring of policing functions. They are also meant to help communities to complement and support the role of police as protectors and promoters of the rule of law. The development of this project benefitted from the Foundation’s experience with community-oriented policing in Indonesia (since 2001) and Bangladesh (since 2003).

Given the dramatic events that have erupted in the NWFP, these two initiatives are very timely. In the long-term, we hope to contribute to citizens’ and local leaders’ capacity to resolve conflicts and ensure justice in their communities. Our long history of investment in the justice sector – including with ADR and community-oriented policing in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region – helps to make these goals attainable.

Asfundyar Khan is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer in Pakistan. He can be reached at akhan@asiafound.org.

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