President Asif ali Zardari will meet with President Obama tomorrow for difficult talks on the growing threat the Taliban poses to his country. While he fashions himself the vanguard of Pakistan's resurgent democratic movement since the ouster of the latest military dictatorship, he has done little to protect those on the front lines actually working to promote democracy in Pakistan: the NGOs and civil society groups. During this incredibly difficult time in Pakistan, President Obama should encourage Zardari not to turn his back on these essential non-governmental actors.
Pakistan's civil society groups have a storied history, most recently with a lawyers' movement that was instrumental in restoring the ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. While President Zardari had committed to restoring Chaudhry upon taking office, he delayed and the issue became a partisan battle with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. The lawyers' movement, tired of waiting for the change promised by the President, took to the streets in protest. As this movement gathered momentum, Zardari met their demands and restored Chaudhry to the bench.
With this victory, Pakistan's vibrant civil society once again proved its value and essential role in deepening democracy in the country. For years, large swaths of Pakistan have suffered from no government services or protection of basic rights. NGOs have filled the void by vaccinating babies, feeding the population and building schools that teach math and science. Even during the dark days of military dictatorship, Pakistan's civil society has kept alight the flame of rule of law and human rights. As a result of their efforts, democrats like former UN Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders Hina Jilani and lawyers' movement leader Aitzaz Ahsan are now internationally renowned figures. Those that study civil society movements and NGO programs around the world often look to Pakistan as a model and beacon for how to operate in difficult environments.
NGOs and civil society groups have earned their respected position in Pakistan. Because of their strong reputation and key role in Pakistan's democratic development, they now find themselves under threat from a fierce and invigorated enemy - the Taliban. And unless President Zardari steps up to protect them, the very fabric of Pakistan's fragile democracy is under threat.
In March, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Muslim Khan ordered all NGOs out of the Swat valley. "NGO is another name for vulgarity and obscenity," he said. "They hire women who work with men in the field and in offices. This is totally un-Islamic and unacceptable." The Taliban opposes the use of the polio vaccine because (they say) "it causes infertility" and is manufactured in foreign countries.
NGOs have also come under severe threat in Pakistan's media. Labeled "foreign agents," the NGO acronym has become a slur to the point where humanitarian and human rights organizations in Pakistan are afforded little to no protection. Those in the NWFP and FATA are particularly vulnerable, but there have also been reports of intimidation and attacks against NGO workers in Punjab and Sindh. NGO staff in the Shangla district have been forced to close their doors by the Taliban and ordered to place ads in the local paper that they will never work for an NGO again.
A group of NGO and civil society leaders recently signed a public proclamation to President Zardari calling upon him to aggressively pursue the Taliban and immediately address the suffering of IDPs and others in the devastated Malakand division of the NWFP. Perhaps for fear of appearing self interested, nowhere in the declaration do they call for the protection of NGOs working on the front lines. Someone should be sticking up for this important band of citizens.
A strong democracy in Pakistan is vital to U.S. interests. The best protectors and promoters of democracy in Pakistan have been its civil society and NGO community who now also happen to represent the most powerful ideological opposition to the Taliban. These courageous activists should be protected by the Pakistani government, not scorned or ignored as the Taliban attack. President Obama's checklist of issues to discuss with President Zardari in Washington will be long, but the protection of NGOs should appear near the top. Without a strong and vibrant civil society, the U.S. may find itself with little democracy to support in Pakistan.
Damian Murphy is a Senior Program Manager at Freedom House.