Humanitarian intervention in a sovereign state
by Tom Bamforth, development consultant July 2006

For many aid workers, their formative professional experiences include stints in Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor or Afghanistan: environments marked by the absence of a recognised or enforceable state structure. In such situations, relief agencies can act under the principle of an apolitical humanitarian imperative, with comparatively little concern for state structures or the political impacts of humanitarian intervention. This is not the case in Pakistan. The 8 October earthquake, while causing substantial damage and loss of life, has not significantly threatened the government, the state structure or the national economy. International agencies have consequently found themselves working with, and at the invitation of, a functional and capable government.

Despite the importance of emphasising a depoliticised ‘humanitarian space’, the presence of humanitarian agencies plays into many of the political fault-lines of contemporary Pakistan. These include relations between the centre and the provinces, Kashmir, the legitimisation of military rule, sectarianism, devolution and the further alienation of mainstream political parties. The politics of earthquake relief may have significant ramifications for politics within Pakistan. This in turn affects the working environment for many international agencies, especially those intending to remain in the country into the reconstruction period.

The political environment

Since the late 1950s, Pakistan has been ruled either directly or indirectly by military governments: despite elections, no incumbent political party has ever been voted out of office, and transfers of power have always been preceded by military interventions. Pakistan’s last three elected prime ministers – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – have either been executed or exiled. The country’s current leader, General Pervez Musharraf, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. Musharraf, like previous coup leaders, justified his actions on the basis of the corruption of the previous regime, and promised to use his rule to re-establish ‘genuine’ democracy. In his first address to the nation on assuming power, Musharraf stated: ‘The armed forces have no intention of staying in charge any longer than is absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish in Pakistan’.

Berating what he termed Pakistan’s ‘sham democracy’, Musharraf issued a Proclamation of Emergency suspending the country’s 1973 constitution and bringing Pakistan under the control of the armed forces. In 2002, he introduced the Legal Framework Order (LFO), under which the president can dismiss the National Assembly, approve senior judicial appointments and appoint provincial governors (who have similar powers at state level to those of the president). The role of the military was given constitutional power through the LFO’s establishment of the National Security Council (NSC), a military steering committee whose remit covers ‘strategic matters pertaining to sovereignty, integrity and national security of the state; and matters relating to democracy, governance, and inter-provincial harmony’. Finally, the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) stipulates that presidential orders override all other legislation, and that the actions of the military government are not subject to legal challenge or review.

To achieve dominance over the domestic political landscape, Musharraf has sought to remove the power of provincial governments and to undercut the electoral basis for political opposition to military rule. Under a devolution plan unveiled in 2000, the regime introduced ‘grass roots’ democracy as a substitute for democratisation at national and provincial levels. The purpose of devolution to local government was to depoliticise governance, create a new political elite that would undermine established political opposition, demonstrate democratic legitimacy to internal and external audiences, and undermine the federal principle in which the political, administrative and fiscal autonomy of the provinces was constitutionally guaranteed. Furthermore, the devolution plan also gave the military control of the administrative functions of local government, and extended military influence into the bureaucracy.

The combined effect of these measures has been to ensure the dominance of the military over the state and parliament. Although elections have taken place under Musharraf – there was a referendum on his rule in 2002, and parliamentary polls were held the same year – the rationale for these was not devolution or democratic transition, but the centralisation of the military regime’s political support and economic interests. Pakistan has the world’s ninth-largest military, and defence expenditure is believed to account for 7% of the country’s gross domestic product (this is an educated guess since it is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny). Combined spending on health and education amounts to less than 3% of GDP.

Musharraf’s regime has been strengthened by Pakistan’s international position. Although sanctions were imposed following the 1999 coup, the 9/11 attacks have made Musharraf a key ally in the US-led ‘War on Terror’. Pakistan’s strategic importance – it borders Afghanistan, Iran, India and China – has led to a re-evaluation of Musharraf’s government. From being a military strong-man with nuclear ambitions, Musharraf is now seen as representing forces of pro-Western religious moderation. Holding elections, albeit fixed ones, and half-hearted measures to reduce support to jihadi organisations active in Indian Kashmir have gone some way towards reinventing Pakistan’s military ruler as a moderate democrat.


The environment for humanitarian agencies

Pakistan’s domestic politics and international position have important, but under-appreciated, implications for humanitarian agencies responding to the October earthquake; in effect, agencies may find themselves participants in an ongoing process of political realignment aimed, not at the establishment of transparent democratic government, but at the centre’s consolidation of political, administrative and economic control. Few UN or international agencies have stopped to consider the political environment in which they find themselves. Some agencies describe their activities as extensions of the government, while others, such as UNHCR, provide ‘technical advice’ on camp management. Organisations such as NATO operated under a 90-day mandate in the form of a direct personal invitation from Musharraf.

The government’s initial earthquake response was coordinated by the Federal Relief Commission (FRC). As the emergency phase drew to a close and reconstruction got under way, authority passed to the Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority (ERRA). Both agencies are headed by serving army generals, and both were established without the consent of parliament. Despite the fact that it controls reconstruction funding, the ERRA is not accountable under its constitution to any jurisdiction in Pakistan. UN and international agencies are compelled to register formally with the ERRA and provide it with project proposals and funding sources. Agencies such as UNICEF and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) are consequently caught in a conflict of interest between their humanitarian obligations under the UN system, and the perceived need to be ‘embedded’ with the army directly, or through the ERRA, in order to secure reconstruction contracts. In addition, because the ERRA is responsible for undertaking every task linked to reconstruction, the military-led government has become the key player in reconstruction. Instead of empowering the affected local authorities, the ERRA will be the perfect tool for weakening them, and is likely to undermine the legitimacy of local bodies across the affected region.


Issues of mandate and capacity

Questions of mandate and capacity have further complicated the humanitarian response. The UN in particular has been underfunded and understaffed, and has consequently been dependent on the logistical capacity and local knowledge of the military. The ability of agencies like UNHCR, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNICEF to advocate for established UN humanitarian standards has been compromised by the close working relationship with the government established during the emergency phase. This has affected the returns process in particular. Although a UN Sustainable Returns Taskforce wrote a strategy paper in keeping with humanitarian principles, such as the right to a free and informed choice about where to return, government policy has been coercive. Supplies to ‘formal’ camps with more than 50 families were cut off on 31 March, thus leaving the occupants with little option but to go elsewhere (‘informal’ camps with fewer than 50 families were, scandalously, not deemed to fall within the government/UN area of responsibility). The government, through the District Coordination Office, supplied transport to camps as they closed, but there were frequent reports of people being abandoned by the side of the road when the trucks could go no further.

With Pakistan deemed a less enticing disaster location than, say, Thailand, the UN has been accused of sending out a ‘B’ team to manage what is a particularly complex emergency environment. The presence of mainly inexperienced junior staff in the field has affected performance, as have ‘mandate issues’. UNHCR, whose main activities are focused on refugees, found itself working primarily with internally displaced people, and the IOM took on a coordination role for emergency shelter for which it had neither the institutional knowledge nor the expertise (this situation was addressed after secondments from the UK’s Department for International Development). Under the new Cluster approach, UNICEF was given the coordination role in the Protection Cluster. A key element of coordination is the ability to separate the coordinating agency’s institutional priorities with the issues to be addressed by the Cluster. UNICEF has, however, found it difficult to extend its institutional protection mandate for women and children to include monitoring, tracking and advocacy for basic humanitarian standards among the rest of the IDP population, who are by definition vulnerable, and whose interests are the responsibility of the Protection Cluster as a whole. Of more than 300 Union Councils in NWFP, only one had been visited by a UNICEF monitoring team by the end of May. Coordination of the aid effort has also been problematic. OCHA has suffered from a lack of clarity as to its role under the new Cluster approach to disaster management. In addition to being underfunded and operating in an advisory capacity, OCHA has been undercut by the in-built cross-Cluster coordination mechanisms of the new system.


The national and international humanitarian response to the earthquake has been profoundly influenced by the pre-eminence of military figures in Pakistan’s political and administrative structures. This raises important issues of aid accountability and transparency. The almost complete exclusion of the civilian administration and elected bodies from relief and rehabilitation schemes means that army officers represent the government of Pakistan at every level of decision-making. While the government’s stated objectives may be the restoration of ‘genuine’ democratic government, the establishment of extra-constitutional and parliamentary bodies such as the NSC and the ERRA, and the manipulation of electoral and administrative systems, all suggest a serious attempt by the military to centralise and consolidate political power. In this context, the conflict of interest between agencies’ ongoing projects, the imperatives of relief coordination and the perceived need to foster close relations with the military government have undermined both the effectiveness of relief and the neutrality of ‘humanitarian space’. Wittingly or unwittingly, the ill-informed presence of the UN and international relief agencies in Pakistan has increased the regime’s international legitimacy and helped to entrench the army’s power, while further marginalising Pakistan’s civil society.


References and further reading

Owen Bennett Jones, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (Lahore: Vanguard, 2002).

Simon Chesterman, Michael Ignatieff and Ramesh Thakur (eds), Making States Work: State Failure and the Crisis of Governance (Tokyo: UNU Press, 2005).

V. Kukreja and M. Singh (eds), Pakistan: Democracy, Development and Security Issues (Karachi: Paramount Publishing, 2005).

Devolution in Pakistan: Reform or Regression?, ICG Asia Report 77, Islamabad/Brussels, March 2004.

Pakistan: Madrassas, Extremism and the Military, ICG Asia Report 36, Islamabad/Brusssels, July 2002.

Fédération International des Lignes des Droits de l’Homme, In Mala Fide: Freedoms of Expression, of Association and of Assembly in Pakistan, December 2003,


Tom Bamforth is an Islamabad-based development consultant. His email address is: