Nov 6, 2009

Privatising security

By Babar Sattar

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad

The federal and provincial governments in Pakistan refuse to evolve a policy on whether the schools should remain open or closed in face of savage acts of terrorism. This refusal amounts to dereliction of duty because it springs not merely from incompetence or the inability to address a menacing threat but a considered resolve of leaders holding the tillers of our state to relinquish responsibility for the security of citizens.

Amidst the severest security crisis afflicting this country our government is electing to disavow the conceptual foundation upon which the social contract between the citizen and the state is structured. Even before the concept of the modern nation-state evolved, the relationship between the sovereign and his subjects was rooted in the understanding that the subjects will submit to the authority of the sovereign and pay taxes in return for being provided safety and security.

The Constitution of Pakistan states that the right to life and liberty is a fundamental right of all citizens and protecting it is the paramount obligation of the state. Yet, after the suicide attack at the International Islamic University, our look-busy-do-nothing security czar Rehman Malik audaciously declared that the university was responsible for the attack, as its security lapse had made the bombing possible.

The chief minister of Punjab reportedly stated recently that private schools earn enough through fees to be able to cater for their own security. Does Shahbaz Sharif not understand that the right to security and the state's obligation to provide it is not contingent on whether the citizen is indigent or wealthy? Has he conceived an amended concept of the right to security whereby the state will not attempt to protect those who have the financial muscle to fend for themselves?

And what amount of security will be enough? Schools have been asked to raise their boundary walls, place barriers in front of gates, install closed-circuit TV cameras, form bunkers in front of their buildings, multiply the number of armed guards, acquire metal friskers and also install pass-through metal gates for students and staff.

The need for some of these measures, such as pass-through gates, defies logic. The threat, after all, is not from students or staff smuggling in weapons or bombs, but terrorists breaking into the school with use of force, taking students hostage or blowing themselves up. But the more disconcerting fact is not the thoughtless demand for an indiscriminate assortment of security measures, but that the government is neither taking responsibility for security of schools once its instructions have been complied with, nor taking such measures in public schools itself.

The issue of closure of schools highlights three related issues: our lopsided priorities and the government's crass indifferences to its legal obligations; our failure to contrive a national strategy to fight this war now raging in Waziristan and our cities alike; and the failure of our leaders to inject hope and courage in this nation stunned by terror.

Is it not shocking that despite the threat to educational institutions and the intelligence available in this regard, we do not have a federal or provincial policy on how to secure our schools? The government has essentially left it to the schools to decide whether to keep shut or open up at their own risk and cost. The security challenge confronting the state and this nation is indeed acute. It is understandable that even with the best precautionary measures in place a grave tragedy might still afflict an educational establishment. The government can thus not force parents to send their children to schools.

But by taking responsibility and coming up with a sensible security policy for schools, the government can ensure that those who have the resolve to continue to live a normal life in these extraordinary times have the ability to do so.

How does a father explain to his eight-year-old that there is a war underway that requires kids to be shut down in the house while life goes on as usual for the adults? Why is protecting continuity of education together with the spirit, morale and future of our next generation not our topmost priority? If this is a war that is likely to linger for a while, how long can we keep our children huddled? Could there be a more effective way for the terrorists to ensure that fear touches the lives and spirit of each and every house in Pakistan? Only if our political and thought leaders had the ability and prudence to give this nation direction, we have no dearth of courage and resolve to weather the kind of tempest erupting in our midst.

But such direction can only result from a sense of purpose braced by a sense of urgency. No one is proposing juvenile recklessness in face of genuine security threats. But how does a nation prepare itself to fight a protracted battle against human bombs programmed to attack the softest civilian targets as a strategy to push their extremist agenda? We cannot undo history and the mistakes that Pakistan has made as a state to come to this sorry pass. And inevitably many valuable and innocent lives will be lost before we are able to control this menace. But, meanwhile, are we going to cripple our lives voluntarily and instruct our impressionable youth that timidity is the best response to aggression and bullying?

In the aftermath of the GHQ attack, our government functionaries have found another perennial excuse: the state is helpless against terrorists. This cannot be acceptable. Where is the grand plan to secure our cities, towns and citizens? There has been a mushrooming of private security agencies (which creates problems of its own, especially in a country like ours with no effective legal and regulatory structure to control and manage mercenaries).

But why have we not heard of a comprehensive plan to rejuvenate, raise, equip and train an effective police force to provide security and maintain law and order? There are traffic barriers all across Islamabad, but no closed-circuit televisions or scanners installed or other available technologies being utilised to enable the government to gather more information to curb future attacks. No one is trying to think up simple solutions such as creating community watch-and-ward teams to familiarise themselves with residents of their urban neighbourhoods and ensure that terrorists are unable to abuse the anonymity offered by city life by renting homes temporarily.

As the story goes, the goat was weeping bitterly along a mud path when the monkey inquired about her ordeal. She was distressed because the wolf had threatened to eat her kids. The monkey reassured her that he would take measures to address the threat. He then proceeded to climb a few trees, shook some branches and made strange sounds. The next day the monkey passed by again and found the goat crying even more desperately. He was told that the wolf visited again and threatened to eat her kids soon. The monkey comforted her that he would not let that happen. And after giving the goat a purposeful look, he ran off to the highest tree, shook its branches even more vigorously and made louder noises than the day before. The next day he found the goat, grievously mum, lying on the same path. On inquiry she responded with difficulty that the wolf ate up her kids that morning. The monkey responded in a poignant tone that it must be Nature's will, because "you saw yourself I made some hectic efforts."

This is time for no monkey business. We need to rid ourselves of our Rehman Maliks and instead empower capable professionals, who understand the state's obligations, value human life and have the expertise and the ability to conceive and implement practical solutions to bolster our security in these tough times.

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