SINCE the Panama Papers there has been an avalanche of comments, reports and statements. These have expressed righteous indignation, outraged innocence, demands for proof, demands for inquiry, demands for investigation, demands for everyone named in the revelations to be included, demands that the immediate focus should concentrate on the prime minister and his family, etc.
These can be generally divided in two categories: demands for immediate and credible action on the one hand, and demands for delay and obfuscation on the other. The familiar pattern of one scandal being drowned out by a subsequent one is either condemned or relied upon. The average Pakistani will either become a participant or remain an angry, cheated and helpless spectator.
Will the Panama Papers become a watershed for change? The COAS has made a statement linking corruption with terrorism and promising support for rooting out corruption on a non-discriminatory basis. This statement was made after the prime minister’s first TV address to the nation admitting his wealth, asserting his innocence and calling for a ‘judicial’ commission to be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court. This was followed by reports that several senior military officers had been dismissed on charges of corruption and incompetence which was seen by many as proof of the COAS’ determination to implement his declared policy.
This was followed by a second TV address by the prime minister who seemed more agitated than previously, accusing his critics of hypocrisy, undertaking to write to the chief justice of the Supreme Court to head a judicial commission of inquiry, and demanding that his critics either present proof of their allegations before such a panel or apologise to the nation for their irresponsible political behaviour.
The prime minister appears to have overlooked the fact that the burden of proof does not lie on his critics.
The prime minister ignored the question of what the terms of reference of a judicial commission would be including an independent and competent ‘investigative audit’ to look into transfers of money, layered ownerships, and deliberate tax evasion, if any. His critics are concentrating on these very aspects. This is a straight clash between the existing culture of impunity and the emergence of an essential culture of accountability. The prime minister appears to have overlooked the fact that the burden of proof does not lie on his critics. It lies on him to explain the facts as already established by the Panama leaks even if only his ‘politically exposed’ children are specifically named. It should, accordingly, be the bounden duty of any investigative audit to probe these facts to establish whether or not they and the explanations offered are consistent with the laws of Pakistan.
There is an additional obligation that in particular devolves upon the prime minister. Even if he is able to explain that the facts established by the Panama Papers — and other possible revelations — do not violate the relevant laws, he will still need to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the highest judicial panel and to Pakistani public opinion that the moral norms that attach to the highest executive office of public trust were not violated. These norms are mentioned in the Constitution of Pakistan. It will also be the panel’s responsibility to decide, in the light of an investigative audit’s findings, whether any violations of law or moral norms were minor or egregious, and whether or not they render the person concerned disqualified from holding any office of public trust.
The prime minister has graciously offered to ‘go home’ if the judicial commission finds against him. In such an event, specific charges could be preferred against him which may or may not afford him the option of retiring in peace and luxury. Even if the prime minister ‘negotiates’ a deal (and as of now there is no reason to believe he has any intention of doing so) whereby he offers to resign in return for being able to ‘go home’ that would not address the problem since it would set a precedent.
There has been comment about the appropriateness of the military publicly affirming a link between corruption and terror, and calling for a comprehensive and non-discriminatory accountability process. This is fair comment as it is not normal practice for a military to arrogate to itself such responsibility. Nevertheless, some would justify the COAS’ initiative in view of the apparent reluctance of the Supreme Court to take up the case as it is not an investigating body, and normal and proper investigative and judicial procedures should be availed of.
Accordingly, the prime minister’s decision to request the Supreme Court to take up the matter would appear to some as irrelevant, diversionary and dilatory. As such, it would open the way to the normal political wrangling that has ensured that no dereliction of duty is ever properly investigated and prosecuted. Those of this view would argue that in these circumstances the military’s intervention is not inappropriate given the political mess in Pakistan and the ‘existential’ costs of not addressing it.
Civil society and its institutions should normally be able to generate sufficient political pressure to compel appropriate political, judicial and investigative responses without the military having to take an active role beyond its legal remit and responsibility. Is this the case in Pakistan? If not, what is to be done? Is greater judicial activism the answer in such a situation? What about the responsibility of political parties?
There are a few of them whose bases of support are national in extent. Only one of them — along with some smaller parties — seems sincere in calling for an effective and objective accountability process. This should certainly take up specific allegations against the prime minister and his immediate family on a priority basis. But it must also extend to the menace of endemic high-level corruption which involves a general denial of justice and in the absence of redress, significantly raises the prospect of extremism and terror. Should a credible judicial/investigative process find against the prime minister an early general election would be warranted. We are at a fateful crossroads.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.