The issue of registration of local and foreign NGOs and the case of model Ayaan Ali in recent weeks have brought terror-funding and money laundering into the public discourse. Ms Ali has been given bail due to the competence of her high-profile lawyers. But the case of registration and funding of NGOs is still before a three-member bench of the superior judiciary, which is asking the authorities some tough, probing questions. During a hearing of this case in August, the bench observed that foreign funding was like oxygen to the NGOs operating in the country and if the government choked its supply, terrorism will come to an end for good, and that the government should take practical steps to block foreign funding to NGOs. Similar observations were made on two different occasions and quoted by at least two national newspapers. These thoughts, on the correlation between the source of funding of NGOs and terrorism, require guarded scrutiny.
There is a school of thought that would consider it naive and unfair to link NGOs with terrorism. There is a view that all NGOs in Pakistan are instruments of terror funding, disregarding the fact that a lot of public-focused legislation on human rights, including the right to information, the right to education, dealing with harassment at the workplace, improved labour laws, and minorities’ protection inter alia are the result of the hard work that a number of NGOs have put in.
To underscore the possible negative consequences of such a view, let us look at the example of a Norwegian government action in May this year against a Norway-based NGO, Global Network for Rights and Democracy (GNRD) — based on similar presumptions. The Norwegian police raided the GNRD offices, accusing it of money laundering. The GNRD has branches in New York, and many Arab, Asian and African countries, and is known for its intellectual independence, with its narrative on human rights challenging the one that originates from Western capitals. Its founding members agree that Western democracy is good, but not ideal for all, and the entire human rights discourse must be anchored in cultural diversity rather than the ideals of the West only. Norwegian authorities are still investigating GNRD, despite the fact that its accounts are registered with the external Norwegian accountant’s office, to maintain transparency. It is entirely possible that the GNRD is operating according to the law of the land, but the police raid and investigation has tainted its image and it still awaits clearance by the authorities.
Similarly, it’s quite ironic that the Pakistani government appreciates the work put in by NGOs, but there are those in positions of power and influence who view them with suspicion. This invariably creates doubts and confusion among people. The suspicion with which those in positions of power and influence view NGOs is often as a result of the influence of the electronic media, which treats even the most serious issues in a very cursory manner. Such a simplistic view also ties into the right-wing’s narrative on NGOs, branding most of them as Western agents.
As a whole, the picture that emerges when one understands the issues surrounding Pakistan is quite alarming. The discourse simply overlooks the extremely poor rule of law. Crime, terrorism and extremism emerge and flourish when there is poor rule of law. Motivated external funding may be one reason for terror and crime, but this funding takes advantage of already compromised security structures, as well as of the corruption and expedience of the political elite, which then leads to crime, terrorism, extremism and the abuse of law. It is not a surprise that Pakistan ranks 98 out of 102 countries, surveyed for the prevalence of rule of law by the World Justice Project. The main question facing the government and the judiciary is whether they are ready to reform the dated Criminal Procedure Code of Pakistan to improve the rule of law.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2015.
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