Pakistan’s lower house has voted for landmark reform that would end draconian colonial era laws making the country’s restive tribal areas subject to collective punishment and beyond the protection of courts.
The national assembly voted to bring the semi-autonomous border areas at the centre of the war on Islamist terrorism into the mainstream political fold by incorporating them into a neighbouring province.
The move would usher in widespread political reform and see the writ of Pakistan’s courts extend into areas currently ruled by all powerful political agents in a throwback to the British Raj.
After independence Pakistan has continued to govern the seven tribal districts making up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with directly appointed agents wielding nearly total power.
It has also kept the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations which left residents with no recourse to courts and liable to face collective punishment for the crimes of tribe members.
FATA has been a notorious haven for Islamist militants since the 9/11 attacks and the site of regular military operations to weed out terrorist groups from the districts along Afghanistan’s border.
The amendment, which now passes to the senate and ultimately still needs presidential approval, will see FATA officially merged into neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The tribal districts — Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohmand, North Waziristan, Orakzai and South Waziristan — are home to some five million residents, mainly ethnic Pashtuns.
They have long complained they are denied aid and investment because of their special status.
"Today this house has approved a historic bill, which will have very positive effects for Pakistan. I thank the opposition for their support," Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told the assembly.
"We need to provide [FATA residents] with all those facilities which are available to the people in the rest of Pakistan," he added.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a regional analyst and an expert on the tribal areas, told AFP: "Pakistan’s tribal areas have long been neglected. The government has taken this decision very late."
But Ayaz Wazir, a former ambassador and analyst originally from FATA said the districts were unready for the change. He said: “The way the FATA legislation was done quickly, there will be no political and economic improvement for the people of FATA”.
"There is no infrastructure in FATA to serve people there is no police, courts or administrative structure. How will people address their issues? In the past they were resolving through political agents and jirgas and after this legislation there is no immediate substitute”.