The outgoing government in Pakistan has approved an amendment to the century-old Official Secrets Act 1923. The newly endorsed legislation broadens the powers of the intelligence agencies, enabling them to detain and raid any citizen under the mere suspicion of breaching the law.
Historically, Pakistan has faced criticism for its legislative changes concerning human rights, particularly those related to enforced disappearances. The crux of the criticism revolved around the potential misuse of power, a subject that’s back under sharp focus with the recent amendment.
Amnesty International, back in October 2021, criticized a proposed amendment to legislation to outlaw enforced disappearances. The organization suggested that these changes, including criminalizing false allegations of enforced disappearance, were in conflict with international human rights law and could essentially allow state actors to act with impunity.
The expanded powers of the intelligence agencies have brought Amnesty International’s critique back to the spotlight. The concern is that such changes could exacerbate the already prevalent issue of enforced disappearances, potentially shielding state actors with a veil of impunity.
Adding to the concern is the 2022 World Report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The US-based organization called out the Pakistani government for increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and clamping down on citizens, journalists, and opposition politicians, adding another layer of concern to the broadened powers given to intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, HRCP has reported that people in Pakistan continue to disappear, often due to criticism of the establishment or advocacy for better relations with India. This critical viewpoint by the HRCP might offer some context to the recent amendment in the Official Secrets Act. By broadening the definition of “enemy” to include “Any person who is directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally working for or engaged with a foreign power,” the act could potentially be used to target those advocating better relations with neighboring countries, like India.
One area of particular concern is Balochistan, a region with a long history of tension between local population and Pakistani agencies. The new, expanded powers granted to intelligence agencies could fuel human rights abuses in the region, escalating an already volatile situation.
The recent legislative changes in Pakistan, set against the backdrop of a troubling human rights record, are casting doubt over the country’s commitment to the protection of citizens’ rights.
While the government justifies these changes as crucial to national security, critics argue that such legislation could pave the way for increased human rights abuses, particularly in sensitive regions like Balochistan. The unfolding scenario paints a picture of a country at a crossroads, where the balance between national security and human rights is being tested.