The Baluchi minority in southwestern Pakistan and southeastern Iran is increasingly marginalized, discriminated against by the state, and suffers from limited access to the benefits of citizenship, according to political observers and human rights groups.
Although the 6 million-8 million ethnic Baluchis in both countries live in a strategic location atop untapped hydrocarbon and mineral deposits and possible trade routes, it looks unlikely that their grim conditions will improve soon.
A report released on October 22 by the International Crisis Group argues that only free and fair elections are likely to encourage Baluchi participation in Pakistani politics. The Brussels-based think tank predicts that in the absence of political reconciliation, violence will continue unabated between Pakistan's military and Baluchi nationalist militants demanding political and economic autonomy.
"The Baluch people think their resources are being monopolized by the government, that their land and their resources are not their own, and that there is no freedom to express their opinions."
-- I.A. Rehman, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
Baluchi leaders claim to be fighting for autonomy and control over their people's abundant natural resources, but Islamabad regards them as revolutionaries bankrolled by regional archrival India. Years of armed insurrection have killed hundreds of Baluchi militants, Pakistani troops, and civilians.
I.A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group that monitors human rights abuses, says the fighting has displaced thousands of Baluchis in the insurgency-plagued districts of Dera Bugti and Kohlu. Rehman told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the government's strong-arm tactics to suppress the insurgency have created a troubling human rights situation.
"There is the question of the suppression of all dissent. The cases of the disappeared people are only the tip of the problem," Rehman said. "The real issue in Baluchistan is that the Baluch people think their resources are being monopolized by the government, that their land and their resources are not their own, and that there is no freedom to express their opinions."
Displaced Or Missing
The International Crisis Group calls the Baluchi plight a "forgotten conflict." It maintains that the fighting has so far displaced 84,000 people, while thousands of Baluchi nationalist activists languish in jails and hundreds remain missing.
The Pakistani government meanwhile claims to be pouring billions of dollars into major infrastructure-development projects, including a new port on the Arabian sea coast at Gwadar, along with the construction of major roads, rail networks, dams, and new cantonments. Other ambitious projects are aimed at extracting gold, copper, oil, gas, and minerals in Baluchistan Province, which accounts for nearly half of Pakistan's territory and is home to some 8 million people, about half of them ethnic Pashtuns.
But many Baluchis oppose such projects and regard them as unfair efforts to exploit their land. Mariana Baabar, an Islamabad-based journalist and political commentator, says the Baluchis are among the most impoverished groups in the country, and require assistance to meet basic needs as well as longer-term development efforts.
"They do not have clean drinking water. They are not being provided with [basic] health care or education. And they are even regarded as not being part of Pakistan," Baabar said. The Pakistani government "is trying to build a port in Gawadar, but, again, non-Baluchis from Punjab and other regions are being taken there [to settle]. So that is why the people of Baluchistan are unhappy."
Across the border in neighboring Iran, Baluchis are enduring similar woes. There some 2 million Baluchis concentrated in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, representing about 2 percent of the country's total population.
Baluchi insurgents at a camp south of Quetta, in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province (AFP)Drewery Dyke, a Middle East researcher for human rights watchdog Amnesty International in London, told Radio Free Afghanistan that Iran's Baluchi population is subject to economic and cultural discrimination.
Sistan-Baluchistan is "certainly one of the poorest and most deprived provinces in the country. And it has suffered droughts and extreme weather conditions. And certainly -- with respect to the situation of women and schooling for girls -- there are shortcomings that the state really needs to address," Dyke said.
In a September report that Dyke helped research, Amnesty International documented rights abuses by Iranian authorities and the armed Baluchi and hard-line Sunni group Jondallah (which has reportedly been renamed the Iranian Peoples' Resistance Movement).
Since 2005, Jondallah appears to have carried out lethal attacks on Iranian security forces, and taken and executed hostages. Iranian authorities have blamed Jondollah for other attacks that resulted in civilian casualties, but the group has denied responsibility.
Amnesty International has criticized the arrest of suspected Baluchi militants who might have been subjected to torture to produce forced confessions. The group has expressed concern over special judicial procedures put in place by Iranian authorities, and a steep rise in the number of Baluchis who have been targeted.
Dyke said the Iranian authorities "have established a special court...almost like a security court to deal with what is obviously a very severe situation -- in some respects, an insurgency in the country. It appears to [have led] to a decline, an erosion of the safeguards, [of] the fair-trial standards and a massive rise in the implementation of the death penalty against the Baluchis."
The plights of their respective Baluchi minorities are unlikely to improve in the short term. In the best-case scenario, human rights advocates in Pakistan maintain that the coming national elections in Pakistan -- if they are sufficiently transparent -- might boost Baluchi participation in mainstream politics. That, they say, could provide incentives that help defuse militancy.
In Iran, Amnesty International warns that heightened global attention to the Iranian nuclear program might push attention to rights abuses off the international agenda.