Pakistan’s human rights campaigners last week were quick to denounce the introduction of a new presidential decree that gave sweeping fresh powers to security forces for fighting terrorism. The new law empowers the country’s security forces to withhold information on the location of any individual detained on a terrorism charge, or the location of an internment centre for interrogating suspects. In theory, the criticism may carry validity when judged against universally accepted norms of justice and fair play.

Yet, Pakistan is hardly living in normal times. The laws have come in a week of bloody carnage in parts of the country as terrorists have continued attacks on innocent citizens. The recent bloodshed has spanned across all four corners of Pakistan, ranging from an attack on innocent travellers in the south-western Balochistan province to civilians and military men in the central province of Punjab to paramilitary troops in the northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Not too long ago, a fiercely committed police officer in the southern port city of Karachi was assassinated in a Taliban attack for having committed just one crime — his zealous pursuit of Taliban militants.

Critics of the new law are seemingly influenced by their concern over the sweeping powers creating grounds for miscarriage of justice or indeed the virtual absence of justice as Pakistan’s security forces respond to the biggest internal security threat in their country’s history. But abnormal conditions confronting Pakistan today require abnormal measures including controversial ones, given that the country’s very existence could be at stake.

The criticism is indeed inspired by Pakistan’s very troubled history where security forces in the past have been accused of gross human rights violations while carrying out their operations. Yet, history in itself cannot be an adequate enough reason to block the introduction of new laws. Another equally important dimension is indeed the virtual absence of a well-informed debate in the parliament which seeks to not only discuss Pakistan’s security conditions in detail, but also set the course for a comprehensive new policy.

The past year has seen Pakistan go through a historic political transition, following parliamentary elections which saw the first ever smooth transfer of power from one elected regime to another. While the polls may have brought a breath of fresh air, there has been little by way of a historic follow up to begin tackling key issues that bedevil Pakistan on a daily basis. Principally, these are just two. On the one hand, adverse security challenges have deeply affected Pakistan’s daily life and future outlook. On the other hand, adverse economic conditions have failed to lift popular faith in the ability of the state to come to the rescue of ordinary Pakistanis. Together, these two challenges will keep on damaging Pakistan’s outlook unless a concerted effort is brought together to address them.

Nationwide consensus

Going forward, the controversy surrounding the new anti-terror laws must be tackled through two equally vital steps. First, there must be an immediate push to erect safeguards to prevent their abuse. For instance, the establishment of a publicly known oversight mechanism to guard against their abuse will help to tackle at least part of the criticism. If indeed Pakistanis are convinced that these laws do not arm their security forces with an open-ended licence to kill, many sceptics may at least agree to live with them for the moment as they deal with the menacing effect of deadly terrorism.

But second, Pakistan’s political leaders must immediately rally together to create a nationwide consensus behind the need to tackle terrorism. This is acutely essential in a country where many among the most disenfranchised Pakistanis believe that the ruling order is only meant to support the few in positions of power and influence. Given the challenge faced by Pakistan, it is vital for the parliament to immediately discuss the emerging trends surrounding the country and agree on a way forward. What is required is not just an agreement on how to respond to terrorism by making use of the security forces.

Equally vital is the need to discuss and agree on long overdue reforms in the judicial system that are essential to fairly prosecute and sentence individuals involved in cases of terrorism. For too long, Pakistan has been surrounded by much anecdotal evidence suggesting gaps such as inadequate security in place for judges who are assigned to deal with cases of terrorism. Unless there are foolproof mechanisms in place to deal with this gap, prosecution of terrorism suspects will continue to remain weak. The use of novel ideas such as hiding the identity of judges who preside over terrorism trials must be considered in dealing with Pakistan’s security emergency, before it becomes an out-of-control security calamity.

Last but not the least, Pakistanis must be reassured of the presence of a reformist state that surrounds their life, if indeed combating terrorism is to be made a popular cause. This will only happen if indeed the country’s many dispossessed and/or disenfranchised gain the confidence that their voices are being heard in the highest echelons of power. Tackling gaps in areas like education, health care and providing employment to the poorest of the poor must be considered as essential as equipping Pakistan’s security forces with the tools to fight terrorists more aggressively.

Given the size of the challenge surrounding Pakistan, the road ahead may be a long and a difficult one. But Pakistan must embrace the moment and turn the battle against terrorism into a popular cause, to ensure a certain victory at the end of the road.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.