What happens to the enabling space for CSOs if the Intelligence Services step in? The case of Pakistan

What happens to the enabling space for CSOs if the Intelligence Services step in? The case of Pakistan

At a time when civic space is more and more challenged by the political system, instead of being protected by it, SOLIDAR is further strengthening its international commitment to protect freedom of association and the ability of independent Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to operate effectively against all attempts to shrink their space.

SOLIDAR organised an information exchange between its Pakistani partner and EU representatives in Brussels to draw their attention to the situation in the country in the aftermath of the recent elections. Indeed, Pakistani CSOs are at this point almost hostage to the willingness of the government and the intelligence agencies to let them operate.

Every voice is equally important. But to silence the Pakistani one means to take away the possibility for around 200 million people - Pakistan has the sixth largest population in the world - to be organised in civil society organisations. Moreover, Pakistan is home to the world's second-largest Muslim population - whose lack of civic representation in global platforms is detrimental formore constructive and peaceful global relations.

The situation stems from a number of factors. First, the results of the elections held in July 2018. Secondly, the international pressure due both to the terrorism-related worries fuelled by the United States and the increasingly close ties bonding Pakistan to China[1].   

The elections in July 2018 were won by the centrist party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan – former cricket star - who became Prime Minister. PTI was established in 1996 and campaigned on an anti-corruption platform that was eventually rewarded by popular consensus. Nevertheless, it’s not a fresh party in terms of relations with the so-called ‘state within the state’. In fact, the military promptly supported the new political star, and it has now its share of leverage in the decision-making corridors. Indeed, the armed forces and the intelligence agencies, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), play a dominant role, tending to exert influence on domestic and foreign policy issues, rather than leaving them to the government's sole responsibility ─ a claim denied by the army but voiced by the CSOs.

In addition to the ISI,  the Intelligence Bureau (IB) alsp closely follows CSO affairs. In particular, SOLIDAR is increasingly worried by the new register that CSOs are now asked to fill in to be able to work in the country. As mentioned above, international relations also play a key role in this dirty game. Indeed, who is the IB mainly targeting? Above all it is focusing on the CSOs working on international cooperation.

CSOs are normally pleased to be registered to be entitled to their specific status. However, the registration that the Pakistani CSOs are now asked to fill in is particularly worrying for two reasons. First of all, it is handled by IB. It is not the Intelligence Bureau that should manage the relations of the government with the civic space, of course. Let alone ruling over the CSOs possibility to work. Secondly, the new register was introduced without changing the legislation that introduced the previous CSO register, where all the existing organisations are already marked down. Therefore, what is the legal basis upon which the government is asking CSOs to register again, if the law and its requirements haven’t changed? Why is the IB keeping on hold, as it is doing, the registration of some CSOs without communicating with them after they receive the submitted registration application?

Pakistani people should be free to organise in civil society platforms and be a vibrant part of the social dialogue of their country and of its international dimension. SOLIDAR firmly stand shoulder to shoulder with them and the EU should do so too, or we should rethink the value of the Lisbon Treaty, where it states in its fundamental values that In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, free and fair trade, eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights.


[1] The relations with China are centred on the so-called CPEC, which is a massive bilateral project aimed at improving infrastructure within Pakistan, to create better conditions for trade with China and to further integrate the countries of the region. The project is integrated in the ‘One belt, one Road’ initiative, launched by China in 2015

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