According to news agencies, about 130 relatives (25 families) of suspected Taliban militants have been expelled from their homes in Swat Valley and are currently “living in a camp guarded by the military.”
Here’s the interesting part – the families were not “banished” by the Pakistani military. They were ordered to leave by Swat’s local jirga (council) “because their relatives failed to surrender” to security forces, reported the AFP on Tuesday. Colonel Akhtar Abbas, an army spokesman in Swat, told reporters, “A jirga expelled these people because there is a fear that they are still providing support to the militants and targeted killings started in the area.”
According to BBC News, “The military has put them up at a camp previously used by Afghan refugees in the Malakand area.” After guards at the camp reportedly stopped reporters from talking to people there, Col. Abbas told the BBC, “We are not hiding anything, we will take media persons to the camp when the time is right.” Although Abbas said the Army is providing these families “food, drinks, and other necessities,” news agencies noted there are “unconfirmed reports that people in the camp have had their mobile phones taken away.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have condemned this development, claiming it was unlawful to expel militants’ families. The organization asked the government to take action against the tribal council, telling reporters, “We are against the law of collective responsibility. If someone becomes a militant, his family should not be punished. No lashkar (local militia) or tribal council has the authority to expel or punish anyone and the government should take action against it.” HRCP, in the statement, added, “If anyone is suspected of wrongdoing, he or she can be kept under observation in their own areas as well.”
This situation is interesting because it delves into issues of collective responsibility and guilt by association. In Israel, for example, the country’s military (IDF) has used a house demolition policy since 1967, ultimately destroying Palestinian homes “to deter Palestinians from acting against Israel and its citizens.” According to the organization Diakonia, “[I]t appears that the main motivation behind these demolitions, referred to as punitive demolitions, is to punish the Palestinian society for acts committed against Israelis. The demolished homes belong to families of Palestinians that have either carried out or are suspected of having carried out violent actions against Israelis.” Such actions are essentially in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states, “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed, and ‘collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.’”
In the case of the Swati families with alleged associations to Taliban militants, here are some interesting questions:
- Should the expulsion of 130 individuals from Swat Valley to a military-administered camp be considered collective punishment, if all families refused to surrender their Taliban-linked relatives? Is this action then ultimately a violation of international law?
- Even if the families didn’t give up their relatives, should they be banished to refugee camps and made IDPs? Or could the situation have been handled without this expulsion?
- Now that they are in these camps, how long are they expected to stay there? Will they be welcome to return home in the long-term?
The development raises important questions that should be asked in an asymmetric war where the lines between good and bad are more blurred than polarized. Moreover, given Pakistan’s still-pertinent IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) situation, it seems problematic to actively add more people to camps, seemingly without a strategy to return them home. Although many IDPs have since returned to Swat since last year, numbers of people in the country continue to be displaced due to military operations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated last month that there are roughly 1.24 million IDPs in Pakistan, (The recent landslide in Hunza has displaced more people, and about 1300 people are currently housed in a camp in Altit village).
For the now displaced relatives, the ramifications of this perceived collective punishment should also be taken into consideration. Such actions are certain to fuel more discontent among these populations, which is problematic. Moreover, although the military has said the decision was made at the hands of the local jirga, it is likely they at least had some influence in that policy. Ali Dayan Hasan, the South Asia researcher with the NY-based Human Rights Watch, told me that there has been “a pattern of abuse by local jirgas and militias at the request of the military,” a phenomenon HRW has been tracking in Swat Valley. He added, “The state authority should ensure that these people can return to their homes in safety and remain secure upon return.”
I wonder though whether the damage has already been done.
(Many thanks to Gregg for background help on Israel’s house demolition policy!)