Pakistani lawmakers are making a determined effort to extend rights to the northwestern tribal areas that already apply to citizens of Pakistan in other regions.
The proposed laws would amend the country’s constitution to grant residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) full citizenship rights, including access to provincial and federal courts, and would extend the reach of laws passed by the national parliament to the region.
Residents of the FATA are currently governed under a set of 19th-century laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which date back to British rule and have only been marginally amended since that time. Under present laws, legislation passed by the Pakistani parliament is invalid in the FATA, and FATA residents are subject to different judicial proceedings than other citizens.
Critics of the status quo call the laws, which allow for collective punishment by the federal government of tribes and clans for the alleged crimes of an individual, "draconian" and contrary to modern principles of justice.
Influential ruling party and opposition lawmakers in the both houses of Pakistan's parliament have told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that they will back the new legislation.
Senator Farhatullah Babar, a long-time campaigner for the reforms in the FATA, told Radio Mashaal that his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) put forward a bill in the Senate and a resolution in the National Assembly late last month.
"Our basic aim is to empower the parliament to be able to make laws for the FATA," he said. "At present, the FATA has representation in both houses of parliament, but it cannot make laws for the region."
Article 247 of the Pakistani constitution allows the president alone to write and implement laws in the FATA.
"Under this arrangement, only executive organs of the state operate in the FATA, which is outside the jurisdiction of the legislature and the judiciary," said Babar. "Even the local administration is dominated by the military deployed there."
Tens of thousands of FATA residents have been killed and more than two million displaced during a decade of Pakistani military operations against a Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than half a million displaced in an ongoing military operation that began in June in North Waziristan, one of the FATA's seven districts.
In 2011 a coalition government led by the PPP introduced some modest reforms to the FATA that diluted the FCR's collective punishment provisions and allowed for some accountability by establishing a government-appointed tribunal where tribespeople can challenge official decisions.
Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, an opposition lawmaker, said Islamabad needs to urgently push the FATA reform agenda through so that residents see themselves as part of Pakistani democracy.
"Now we have a good opportunity to change things in the FATA, and reforms are immediately required at this time," he said. "Their elected representatives should be able to legislate for them."
Senator Afrasiab Khattak, a lawmaker for the secular opposition Awami National Party (ANP), agrees.
"We now live in an independent country, but the governance regime in the FATA is a relic from the colonial era," he said. "We need to give the people of the FATA full citizenship rights. Why should they be considered lesser citizens?”
As leaders in the Pakistani parliament in 2010, the PPP and the ANP pushed similar proposals for sweeping reforms under the 18th amendment to the constitution. The amendment empowered the country's provinces and removed many democracy-limiting provisions from the constitution, but the parties failed to generate a consensus when it came to overhauling the FATA's laws and constitutional status.
Today, however, most political parties appear to agree on the need to change key constitutional provision to help the FATA join the political mainstream. Ten major Pakistani political parties represented in the Joint Committee for FATA Reforms recently called on Islamabad to bring development and security to the tribal areas after making the required constitutional and administrative changes.
Ibadullah Khan, a lawmaker from the governing Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Party, told Radio Mashaal that although his party did not back reforms for the FATA during previous stints in power, it is now committed to implementing change.
"We will lobby hard and pave the way for this legislation to be adopted," he said. "We are committed to granting the residents of the FATA fundamental human and citizenship rights."
Nasir Khan Afridi represents the FATA's Khyber tribal district in Pakistan's National Assembly. He said the proposed legislation will empower representatives from the FATA to serve their voters.
"Until now, the FATA's lawmakers have been powerless because we are mere adjuncts to the president and the government," he said. "But these amendments will help us in addressing the pressing concerns of our constituents."
The Pakistani parliament is expected to debate the proposals during its ongoing session this month.