Asif Ali Zardari never aspired publicly to be a political leader in Pakistan -- that is until the assassination of his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. In his heyday as first spouse he seemed content to use his proximity to power to enrich himself behind the scenes while leading a playboy life. Now it must be clear even to those in Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party who struggled valiantly to support him after he claimed the presidency of Pakistan last year that he has been a colossal disaster -- to the nation and the party.
The spectacle on Sunday of an opposition leader whom Zardari tried to silence leading a huge, enthusiastic march against the president toward Pakistan's capital, barging calmly out of house arrest, through police lines and unafraid of military troops, is only the latest and most telling of testimonies to the president's misjudgments and blunders. He has almost succeeded in making the rule of General Pervez Musharraf look good.
By early Monday, Zardari capitulated to a major demand by Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader: former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had been sacked by Musharraf, would be returned to the bench. Sharif stopped the march, which the government seemed intent on blocking outside the capital in any case, but the fate of Justice Chaudhry is not Zardari's only problem.
The long-simmering political confrontation in Pakistan poses multiple problems for the United States. The decision to throw in America's lot with the Bhutto-Zardari clan in 2007 was made by the Bush administration, another legacy with which the Obama team will need to wrestle. Political chaos is the last environment the US needs as it tries to forge a workable partnership with Pakistan in the face of Islamic pressures, and in advance of an international conference on the future of Afghanistan. What if, in a scenario almost too worrying to contemplate, Zardari were to be forced to step down, or a new parliamentary election called, with an unpredictable outcome? The United States would have to start over cultivating political allies capable of addressing a spectrum of crises.
In recent weeks, with the Pakistan economy in decline after some improvement in the Musharraf years, new pressures from India, Islamic militancy not only on the rise but also able to cobble together no-go zones under Shariah law in previously moderate pockets of the country, broadcast bans imposed and threats of military force, Zardari has thoroughly alienated Sharif's home base of Punjab, the most prosperous and populous of the country's four provinces.
Sharif, a wealthy (and allegedly also corrupt) Punjabi from an industrialist family, has been a leading politician in and out of power (and exile) for two decades. He was prime minister twice, leading the Pakistan Muslim League into national election victories before dismissing General Musharraf and being overthrown by him when Sharif attempted to block the general's plane from landing in Karachi from an official trip to Sri Lanka.
After time in exile in London and the Middle East, Sharif has proved lately to be a very wily and accomplished politician, more fluent in English and more media savvy than when he began his career in the 1980s, and apparently more measured in strategy. That he commands a following in Punjab has never been in doubt, which raises the question of why Zardari, a Sindhi from the south, would launch a frontal attack last month on the elected government of Punjab.
When the Supreme Court ruled in February that Nawaz Sharif would be barred from public office and his brother Shahbaz removed as the chief minister of the province, Zardari's hand was widely seen behind the judicial decision, which gave the president executive control over the Punjabi provincial government. The gates to dissent were flung wide and mass protests took over streets, parks and highways. Lahore, the center of protest, is not only Punjab's capital but also Pakistan's intellectual and cultural center.
By becoming Justice Chaudhry's champion, Sharif cleverly attracted to his cause some of the same middle-class professionals who marched against Musharraf in 2007 after the dismissal of dozens of judges, including the chief justice. Sharif knew well that Zardari feared that the judge, if reinstated, could revive corruption charges against him that were dropped in a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto to clear the way for her ill-fated return to Pakistan.
Also in the crowds turning out in support of Sharif over the weekend were contingents from at least one Muslim religious party, reporters on the scene noted. In the background of recent developments have lurked fears among Pakistan's moderate majority that Sharif could enhance his political base by opening more space to Islamic parties, which historically do poorly in national elections. There is also concern that Islamic militants outside the mainstream could take advantage of the political chaos to commit terrorist acts.
As American officials and diplomats worked to cool tempers on both sides, and press Zardari for some concessions, Sharif has gained the upper hand, and is making the most of the moment. On Sunday he accused Zardari of turning the country into a police state, outdoing even Musharraf in trying to stifle protest.
The world has a new United Nations high commissioner for human rights, a job that comes with built-in controversy. Right at the start, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's choice for the post, Navanethem Pillay, a South African judge now sitting on the International Criminal Court, seems to have caught a lot of people off guard and provoked some unexpected reactions.
Pillay, 67, is something of a star among international legal experts but was not widely known outside her home country, the UN and the war crimes tribunals and courts in The Hague and elsewhere. Beholden to no major human rights organizations, she was criticized by some in the field for not being "accessible" to that community or a more outspoken rights advocate. (She counters that was not her role as a judge.) In Washington, where the Bush Administration seems to have been prodded into a last-minute scramble to try to derail the appointment, it was discovered that she was -- gasp! -- a feminist.
That Secretary General Ban held firm to his choice in the face of U.S. anxiety, if not actual opposition, is both interesting and important. By one measure, his ability to proceed with this appointment after nearly a week's delay may reflect a diminution of American clout within the always politicized UN system, especially in the area of human rights. The Bush Administration not only refused to join the recently created Human Rights Council, but also worked actively to undermine the International Criminal Court, even removing the United States from the list of signers of the treaty that created it. And then there is GuantÃƒÂ¡namo, a target of criticism by the Canadian Judge Louise Arbour, who was Pillay's predecessor as human rights commissioner. Ban's steadfastness may also indicate that at this moment of multiple crises on that continent, Africa -- not only South Africa but also the larger African Union -- cannot be trifled with. Africa, which strongly supported Ban's election as secretary general, may have trumped U.S. concerns. That's something of a watershed. Will Ban, thought by many diplomats to be too close to Washington, be emboldened to open a little more distance?
Various reports have indicated that Washington's concern was that Pillay was the candidate of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and as such she might share his unwillingness to take a strong position against Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan or other renegades. That seems unlikely, given her track record for independence. But the real snag in the White House may have been the campaign waged by the anti-abortion lobby, with the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute at the forefront. Somewhere along the line the anti-abortionists appear to have "discovered" that Pillay was a co-founder of Equality Now, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that helps women around the world learn about and fight for their rights. The organization has played a leading role in supporting local African women's campaigns against female genital mutilation and has battled successfully to stop sex tourism in New York, among other projects. It is not known as a pro-abortion lobby.
In any case, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters that the charges leveled against Pillay had been checked out. "We didn't find substance to the allegations," he said on July 23, as Ban made the Pillay appointment official. The attitude of Khalilzad throughout the mini-crisis was noteworthy. From the start, he insisted that the choice of a human rights commissioner was the Secretary General's to make, and he seemed unwilling to join the Bushites who go on the offensive whenever women's reproductive rights come up at the UN. These are some of the same people who have backed a boycott of American contributions to the UN Population Fund since 2002 and who side with the Vatican and conservative Muslim nations on international women's issues in the Economic and Social Council.
Washington had its own slate of candidates for high commissioner, assembled hastily by most accounts. One of them, an Asian woman, has told a human rights activist in New York that in an interview with American officials she was asked about her views on abortion, which she refused to denounce. She never heard back. None of the American candidates made the UN short list. Runners up to Pillay were Juan MÃƒÂ©ndez of Argentina, a human rights lawyer who has been the secretary general's special advisor on the prevention of genocide, and Hina Jilani, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan who, with her sister Asma Jahangir is a leader in fighting for women's rights and civil liberties there and in international organizations.
What is strange is that the qualifications that Pillay brings to the high commissioner's office were not applauded by the Bush team, which prides itself on having leaned on the Security Council in June to pass a resolution reiterating the doctrine now enshrined in law that rape and other forms of sexual abuse are recognized crimes of war. Pillay, before and during her time as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was among who pushed to press such charges because rape had figured horrifically in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. In September 1998, the Rwanda tribunal became the first of the war crimes courts to punish sexual violence in conflict. It convicted a local government official, Jean-Paul Akayesu, of rape as an act of genocide. Is a jurist's view on abortion to be given a higher priority than this?
Navanethem Pillay is a woman for the era in other ways too. Born into an ethnic Tamil family in Durban, she grew up in a minority community no less victimized by apartheid than black South Africans. The daughter of a bus driver and an unschooled mother, she rose through the education system in South Africa to a place at Harvard Law School, where she took two degrees before returning to Durban and becoming the first woman to open a law firm in Natal province. She was known for her defense of political prisoners. After Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, Pillay was the first nonwhite female justice appointed to the South African Supreme Court. A quiet but steady, focused lawyer and judge, she epitomizes the concept, so often honored in the breach at the UN, that the talents of women are key to development. With the right tools, including better education and more reproductive health services, women can reduce poverty and slow the spread of HIV-AIDS across the global South. But women, especially in Africa and Asia, need to know their rights and find ways to raise their status in society. Pillay, who understands this, will be there to support them.
Reports prepared for the 15th International AIDS Conference now taking place in Bangkok confirm what many have been predicting: that India, with 5.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, is poised to overtake South Africa as the nation with the most cases in the world. South Africa has 5.3 million infected people.
The story is not just about numbers, however. It is about attitudes, and the willingness to admit that catastrophe looms and that national responses have to equal the scale of the problem. South Africa, it is now accepted by AIDS activists and many government officials alike, wasted precious years in denial, followed by arid debate about whether HIV really causes full-blown AIDS. Is the bungling of South Africa about to be replayed in India?
In Asia, India is not alone in being slow to rise to the potential damage ahead. China, with at least a million AIDS cases, tried to cover up not only the epidemic but also a scandal about tainted blood transfusions that contributed to the toll. In countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, where early and effective measures were taken to stem the spread of the disease, experts fear that a dangerous complacency has set in.
But India is by far the most powerful and influential country in South Asia; that broad expanse that stretches eastward from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, north to Himalayas and south into the Indian Ocean. The brothels of India are peopled by women from Nepal and Bangladesh, among others. AIDS knows no borders.
There are paradoxes aplenty. India has a large pharmaceutical industry making antiretroviral drugs for AIDS patients around the world. But that industry has not flooded the Indian market on a sufficient scale to bring relief to fellow Indians, as Brazil's drug industry has concentrated on making these medicines available to every needy Brazilian.
Furthermore, Indian drug firms, whose quality control standards have long been suspect among Indian consumer organizations, are beginning to attract more scrutiny abroad. Substandard drugs or the careless control of their use, AIDS experts are saying this week in Bangkok, can fuel hazardous variant strains of the virus, possibly unresponsive to current medications.
More than that, the World Bank said recently, other social and economic factors point to a very high risk setting for South Asia. More than 35 percent of the region's people live below local poverty lines, often equivalent to earnings of about $1 a day. Illiteracy is high. Sex is not considered a fit topic of conversation in polite society. Men resist the use of condoms and the status of women is generally abysmally low, so they have no power to insist.
In research done for the East-West Center in Honolulu, Tim Brown, a senior fellow focusing on the Asia-Pacific region, wrote recently that there are huge gaps in available data; a perennial problem in too many Asian nations where not knowing is preferable to facing unpleasant statistics that require tough action. Model "boutique" programs are not enough when the numbers are climbing at this rate.In January, Brown wrote in Asia-Pacific Population and Policy, a publication of the East-West Center, that "political leaders find it difficult to acknowledge the level of HIV risk in their own societies."
He added, "They may find it even more difficult to work with the stigmatized population groups who can help halt the epidemic; clients and sex workers, drug users, men who have sex with men and people living with HIV."
Throughout much of Asia, with the exception of Thailand, newspapers and television largely lack serious reporting on issues of human behavior and sexuality. Gay life is rarely covered in the media.Most people, especially women, remain woefully ignorant of the way AIDS spreads into the general population. In India, as in southern Africa earlier, the disease is now affecting women in large numbers; most of them, sex workers aside, are innocent wives who are not aware of (or are in denial about) their husbands' premarital or extramarital sexual activity, homosexual or heterosexual.
While Western campaigners who push for more help from rich countries for AIDS sufferers in the developing world focus on cheaper drugs and prefer not to talk about behavior change in the name of cultural sensitivity, people in the hardest-hit nations think otherwise. But changing attitudes and behavior can involve cultural awareness.
At the East-West Center, Brown says, for example, that in Asia, where intravenous drug usage and the commercial sex industry are major factors, "Mounting an effective response means placing a strong emphasis on CNN (condoms and new needles) as opposed to the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, use condoms) strategy that some are advocating for Africa."
"Teaching people how to protect themselves and providing them with the means to do so will be more effective than trying to change culturally embedded behavior overnight," he wrote.
The World Bank recently took a look at another vulnerable region, the Caribbean, and found that almost any local proclivity to engage in risky behavior, whatever the social, cultural or economic reason, can be countered by strong political will; something that many find missing in large areas of Asia.
The bank, which promised the Caribbean region $155 million to put a regional AIDS-control plan into practice, singles out two very different countries for their early success.
In the Dominican Republic, half a dozen ministries – labor, youth, science and technology, women's affairs, tourism and education – were brought together to work on the problem.
In Barbados, the first country to qualify for part of the World Bank grant, AIDS deaths have been reduced by 50 percent through the free and universal provision of antiretroviral drugs and better health care for the infected population. But along with that came extensive education programs and an abstinence campaign in schools aided by UNICEF funding. Condoms are marketed widely at low cost under government direction.
Barbados may be small, but it was badly threatened by AIDS before political leaders committed the country to comprehensive measures, then followed through on them.
"Barbados is a model for enhanced HIV/AIDS treatment and care in developing counties," the bank said. Asian nations, big and small, would do well to look at this winning formula.