Justice Louise Arbour has a distinguished career devoted to promoting the principles of justice. Currently serving as the President of the International Crisis Group, Justice Arbour is the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and the Court of Appeal for Ontario and a former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. As such, she knows a thing or two about the importance of an independent judiciary in developing countries and emerging democracies. That’s why, when Justice Arbour expresses concerns about the looming constitutional crisis in Pakistan, her concerns merit serious consideration.
An ardent supporter of Pakistan’s 2007 “Lawyer’s Movement” to restore judges deposed by Gen. Musharraf, Justice Arbour had hoped to see a new era for the Court, one that broke with its past of supporting military dictators and their mangling the Constitution and the rule of law. Today, she fears that those same justices have become “intoxicated with their own independence,” and that the current direction of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Justices threatens to upend the very democratic order that restored them to the bench.
Speaking to a crowded auditorium at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, Justice Arbour noted that the current tension between Pakistan’s Supreme Court and its elected officials might seem like a political soap opera were it not for Court’s history of collusion with the military to suppress democracy. Judges “who took an oath to a military dictator are not well placed to make the decision” to remove democratically elected officials, she observed, referring to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s 1999 oath under Gen. Musharraf’s Provisional Constitutional Order. While not inevitable, Justice Arbour said, it is possible that Pakistan’s Supreme Court could end up dissolving the democratically elected government with the help of the military, putting in place an extended caretaker government in what would be, for all intents and purposes, another coup.
During her visit to Pakistan, she assured the room, she met with no government officials. Her interest was in the views of the legal community, whom she found deeply divided, seemingly on political lines. This troubled the former Justice, who worries that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has become increasingly politicized, threatening its credibility. She pointed to the memo commission, which she said “reflected very poorly on the judiciary,” and added to the appearance of growing politicization.
The present case, in which the Supreme Court has ordered the Prime Minister to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting that criminal cases be reinstated against the President, adds to the appearance of an increasingly politicized judiciary. From a legal perspective, the issue centers on one of separation of powers. In fact, Pakistan’s Chief Justice has repeatedly stated recently that “parliament is not supreme.” In questions such as these, where the Supreme Court has a vested interest in the outcome, Justice Arbour suggests that it is all the more important that court show self-restraint and frame its decisions in a way that “advances the authority of all institutions,” not only its own.
Justice Arbour was also clear that her concerns about the Supreme Court’s actions do not imply a disinterest in accountability. There is a misconception that presidential immunity is unprecedented, she explained, reminding the audience that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his term in office and, now that he is out of office, faces possible charges for campaign finance violations.
Article 248 of Pakistan’s Constitution, which grants temporary immunity to Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister, and Governors, is clearly worded, said Justice Arbour; and that privilege exists for a reason – to allow government officials to perform their official duties without distraction. Asked by a member of the audience whether President Zardari should be subject to accountability, Justice Arbour responded that all officials should be subject to accountability. The issue is not one of accountability, but timing. Rather than wait six months for Pakistan’s next general elections, she said, the Supreme Court is unnecessarily undermining not only the present government, but the democratic system, which is weak from decades of neglect under military regimes.
Justice Arbour is not the only former Supreme Court justice to express grave concern about the direction of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Last month, Justice Markandey Katju, a former member of the Supreme Court of India, wrote a detailed explanation for his concern that Pakistan’s Supreme Court is “playing to the galleries and not exercising the self-restraint expected of superior courts.”
As a growing chorus of international jurists expresses concerns about the actions of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, we hope that Pakistan’s Honorable Justices will consider Justice Arbour’s words carefully if for no other reason than their own self interest. Historically, Pakistan’s courts suffered greatly under undemocratic regimes. Should Pakistan’s democracy become derailed as a result of the present crisis, there’s no reason to believe the judiciary would fare better this time around.