Pakistan: Inconvenient Truths

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Refugees International Refugees International advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people

By: Patrick Duplat, Advocate

"When they realize you're a Mehsud, they treat you like a suicide bomber who's wearing an explosive jacket." -- A displaced Pakistani from South Waziristan, quoted in Dawn

Pakistan is in the midst of an internal conflict with severe humanitarian consequences. Tens of thousands of civilians fled South Waziristan in the past few days, as the Pakistani army continues its offensive against the Taliban in the country's northwest. With the UN declaring that 1.7 million displaced Pakistanis from the Swat and Buner districts returned home since July, it's easy to forget that this crisis has been going on for more than a year, and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, while I was in Pakistan in early October most aid workers insisted that their biggest challenge will be to sustain the required level of aid in the coming months. More than 700,000 civilians remain displaced, the families who've returned will need help to rebuild their lives. The army's operations continue to displace thousands. The humanitarian community is preparing to launch a fundraising appeal for 2010 based on projections of future large scale displacement. It's hard to fathom why, in the words of a high ranking UN official, the Pakistani government "thinks the crisis is over."

Yet funding is not the only concern. As the Overseas Development Institute, Oxfam and Refugees International (Protect People First, published on 26 October 2009) have all highlighted in our respective reports, aid is politicized and is not reaching the most vulnerable. The Pakistani government is a party to the conflict and is at the same time coordinating the relief effort. The humanitarian community, led by the UN, has found it difficult to collaborate with the government while ensuring that assistance is given on the basis of need, rather than serving as a political instrument.

The dilemma is particularly flagrant in South Waziristan, where the government has kept most aid workers and journalists out of the area. A major international aid organization was escorted out of D.I. Khan, South Waziristan's neighboring district, when it tried to conduct an assessment there. UN agencies are forced to operate via 'remote control' through Pakistani aid organizations, with little oversight on how aid is distributed. Population movements are controlled, with some areas cordoned off by the military. Tribal allegiances are being played out as aid is handed out to one group over another, in an attempt to create or deepen tensions.

In the face of such violations of humanitarian principles, human rights abuses by the Pakistani army and discrimination in assistance, the international community is remaining mostly silent. To avoid disrupting relations with a key ally on the war against the Taliban, the U.S. and the European Union have failed to raise these sensitive issues. As the head of an aid group told us, everybody is "afraid to deliver inconvenient truths" to the Pakistani government. But treating civilians like "suicide bombers" is not going to earn their trust -- and the international community should understand that it would be a pyrrhic victory if winning against the Taliban meant losing the population.