On the 31st of March 2014, the Balochistan Home Department announced that it had lodged the first ever case to be filed under the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO). The case was registered against unknown assailants accused of firing upon a train travelling between Sibi and Quetta in an incident that left two people dead and several more wounded.

Although the provincial Home Department’s announcement received very little attention in the press, it is important to understand the considerable importance of this particular development. Originally promulgated in November 2013, the PPO authorizes military, paramilitary, and police forces in Pakistan to arrest people without charge and detain them for up to 90 days at undisclosed locations around the country. The security forces have also been given the power to use lethal force against suspects who refuse to comply with their directives. The Ordinance also provides for the creation of Special Courts to try these cases, and shifts the burden of proof on to the accused; in a stunning reversal of one of the fundamental tenets of justice, people charged under the Ordinance will be presumed guilty unless they are able to establish their innocence. Finally, the Ordinance labels individuals who undertake actions against the state as being ‘enemy aliens’ unless they are able to prove that they are citizens of Pakistan, thus removing any constitutional protections that they might be able to avail.

When it was first introduced, the PPO was justified in terms of the crisis of security that Pakistan currently faces; given the threat posed by militants across the country, it is argued that the PPO provides a legal mechanism through which to effectively deal with terrorists and other anti-state actors. Similar justifications were trotted out earlier this week when the PPO was brought before the National Assembly as part of the PML-N government’s efforts to have the Ordinance converted into an act of parliament. While the ruling party remains adamant about the need to pass these measures and is reportedly exploring the possibility of doing so through the use of its majority in the National Assembly, it is significant that Opposition parties from across the political spectrum have expressed serious reservations about the proposed law. Indeed, in its current form, it is unlikely that it will be able to get through the Senate.

There are several fundamental problems with the PPO. For one, it is easy to see how it represents a direct threat to the civil liberties of the people of Pakistan. In a context where the rights to freedom of expression and belief are already being systematically eroded, the PPO does away with the entire concept of due process. Suspects have to prove their innocence, can be arrested without charge, and can have their residences searched without warrants. As even a cursory reading of the text of the Ordinance shows, vague references to ‘reasonable cause’ place a tremendous amount of power and authority at the disposal of security forces that have historically shown themselves to be more than capable of engaging in arbitrary and capricious exercises of coercion and intimidation. That this can happen is borne out by Pakistan’s experience with the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, a law that has been used to prosecute individuals for a diverse array of criminal and political offences that have little, if anything, to do with terror.

The problem is exacerbated when considering the types of offences that are likely to be tried under the PPO. While the law ostensibly exists to aid security forces engaged in battling Islamist militants, it is not coincidental that the law has first been invoked to target Baloch nationalists. Should the PPO remain in force or be passed as an Act of Parliament, it would legitimize the very same practices that have been used by security forces in Balochistan, as epitomized by the ongoing saga of the Missing People from that province. Given that the PPO extends to any potential cases that involve any kind of action against the government, it is not unreasonable to expect that the provisions of this law will be used to target anyone the state considers to be a threat. In the absence of any meaningful mechanisms through which to regulate the conduct of the security forces, the PPO simply serves to add a veneer of legality to the abusive and vindictive practices of the state.

Finally, the PPO has the effect of demonstrating and, indeed, reinforcing the weakness of the state. At a very basic level, attempts to combat militancy and impose the writ of the state have been hamstrung by the institutional weakness of the police, the courts, and the various government agencies involved in these efforts. Given that Pakistan already has a plethora of laws that pertain to the types of offences referred to by the PPO, it is arguably more important to address the structural factors that impede the state’s capacity to implement these laws. Providing the police with the power of arbitrary detention will not help them overcome the capacity constraints that prevent them from putting together the types of cases that lead to successful prosecutions. Indeed, given that the types of practices legalized by the PPO have been a de facto part of the repertoire of the security agencies for some time now, the state’s inability to combat terror is clearly rooted in causes that have little to do with the presence or absence of specific legal provisions. Similarly, inasmuch as Pakistan’s continuing problems with terror and militancy stem from a lack of political will on the part of the government to deal with them, as well as an inability to reevaluate the poisonous ideological agenda that has given birth to them, expanding the coercive power of the state will do little to improve the situation.

Should the PPO remain in place, it will give rise to greater government repression, the arbitrary use of coercive power by the state, and a tremendous erosion of civil liberties in Pakistan, all without generating any of the institutional reform that is required to effectively deal with the country’s problems. With this law, Pakistan will become more authoritarian and draconian, all of which raises the question of whether or not this is even the kind of Pakistan we want to protect.

    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.