Quetta’s enduring savagery: ethnic cleansing or sectarian violence?

Ethnic cleansing is a crime under international law. In the case of Pakistan, we see a cold-hearted and detached response by the federal government. Who then should be held accountable for these ruthless killings? 

Since the start of 2013, more than 300 people have been killed in different attacks in Quetta – the provincial capital of Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province.  The targets of these attacks have been Pakistan’s Shiite Hazara minority.

The 2013 cycle of violence was set in motion by the January 10 twin suicide blasts that left 117 dead with over 200 injured.   The detonation of an improvised explosive device on February 16 led to 84 dead and more than 200 injured.  Besides these major bomb blasts, the Hazaras have been targeted almost on a daily basis, leaving their neighborhoods and mosques vulnerable to ongoing violent attacks.

After the January 10 attack, the embattled Hazara community was forced to protest in the most unorthodox manner when they refused to bury the victims of the January 10 massacre. Members of the Shia community staged a three-day sit-in on the very street where the attack took place and demanded the imposition of military rule for their protection and sacking of the democratically elected but ineffectual provincial government. The protest ended with a mass burial of the victims after the imposition of the Baluchistan's governor`s orders.

Following the February attacks, once again, in subzero conditions, the Hazaras have refused to bury their dead and staged a protest on the streets with 84 dead bodies.  The President of the Baluchistan Shia Conference, Syed Dawood Agha,  stated that this time “until our demands are met, we will continue our protest.”

Protests in Quetta. Demotix/Syed Yasir Kazmi. All rights reserved.

The Hazara are demanding that the army conduct an operation against the terrorists that carry out such acts. The continued attacks on the Hazaras raise two issues - either the government of Pakistan and its armed forces are incompetent, or they are complicit with these organizations that are mercilessly killing an ethnic group based on its religious identity.

Quetta is home to an estimated 2.5 million people, of which 600,000 are Hazaras, who emigrated from Afghanistan to Quetta about 120 years ago in order to avoid harsh repression by the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman.  About a century later, the same fate has followed the Hazaras in Pakistan, where they sought refuge from persecution on the basis of their distinct Mongolian features and Shia identity. 

The similarities between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries are uncanny.   We can trace the attacks on the Hazaras back to the nineteenth century, when Afghanistan's ruler declared a jihad against the Hazara Shias for the same reasons, their distinct features and Shia identity. Analogously, in today’s Pakistan, the Taliban backed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)has spearheaded this anti-Shia crusade, as a counter movement to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

The question that needs to be asked is how should we characterize the situation in Quetta? Is it sectarian violence or ethnic cleansing? To call it sectarian violence would be an injustice to those who were savagely killed, to those who are forced to leave their homes, and of course to those who have endlessly suffered because of their distinguishing features and religious identity.

The reason the anti-Hazara violence should not be called sectarian is that that would suggest symmetrical levels of confrontation between two or more ideological groups.  In Quetta, the Hazaras (Shia minority) are targeted by the LeJ (a Sunni group) and the victims are either too weak or unable to confront the opposing group. Thus violence unleashed in this situation is asymmetrical and seeks to carry out a systematic elimination of Hazara men, women and children.

The plight of Hazaras reminds us more exactly of the Serbian-led Croatian ethnic cleansing.  The UN resolution GA 47/121 refers to “ethnic cleansing” as a form of genocide; it is characterized as genocide when a group of people intends to “destroy, in whole or in part” another group of people by force. The purpose of ethnic cleansing is to remove the targeted ethnic community by hostile measures.  The LeJ’s sole tactic is killing (accompanied by largescale bloodshed) and the forced expulsion of the Hazara community from Quetta.

Ethnic cleansing is a crime under international law – it is a crime against humanity under the statutes of International Criminal Court (ICC). In the case of Pakistan, we see a cold-hearted and detached response by the federal government. Who then should be held accountable for these ruthless killings?

Should the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – which brazenly takes full responsibility for each bomb blast targeting the Hazaras and all Shia, be held ultimately responsible? Or should the blame rest with the state, which is ruled by the Pakistan Peoples Party government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who despite multiple requests by the Hazara community for protection has failed to ensure their security.  Or should we hold the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, who by oath is responsible for the protection of all Pakistani citizens and has failed to defend them from the enemy within, and from external enemies as well?

The silent ethnic cleansing that the Hazaras have endured over a span of many years needs to stop. The Hazaras are as much Pakistanis as the Punjabis; Pashtuns, Baluchs or Sindhis. Those responsible for the security of Pakistan and its citizens cannot continue to ignore these daily atrocities.  Someone needs to be held responsible and punished.  For its part, the international community cannot remain a silent spectator to these massive human rights violations – in the end the price paid by the Hazaras and indeed Pakistan is too heavy to pay!

About the author


Farah Jan is a PhD candidate in Political Science, at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, specializing in comparative politics and international relations.