Pakistan: ‘Muslims are against one another and everyone else’

by - 14th March 2012

Pakistani Shias march in Islamabad to protest security services alleged complicity in killing of pilgrims in Kohistan. Photo: Press TV

On 28 February, 18 Shi'a Muslims were shot in Kohistan, Northern Pakistan, after being ordered off the bus in which they were travelling. The attack came only a month after a powerful blast in Khanpur took the lives of twenty Shi'as celebrating a mourning festival for Imam Hussein.

Clearly violence between Sunnis and Shi'as is not new, neither is violence against other minority groups in Pakistan. However, what makes these atrocities more significant is the fact that Pakistan is currently under scrutiny by the United Nations in the form of an evaluation by the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Unit.

The Review is not expected to be complimentary about Pakistan’s progress on human rights.

However, despite the many reasons for doom and gloom there are some glimmers of hope as far as minority interests are concerned.

The National Commission for Human Rights Bill 2012 was passed by the Pakistani Senate last Friday (9 March) creating an official Human Rights Commission under the authority of a retired judge or human rights expert.

This will include representation by two members of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as women. Women are particularly in focus following neighbouring President Karzai of Afghanistan’s reversal of the drive for increased freedom and opportunity for women in his country.

But, as positive as the passage of this Bill undoubtedly is, it has been in the pipeline since before the last UN Universal Periodic Review in 2008. And the setting up of a Human Rights Commission has been incumbent upon all UN members since the General Assembly resolution of 1993. 

This Bill therefore does not have about it any authentic sense of enthusiastic participation. Indeed its tardiness, coupled with Pakistan's long history of humanitarian concerns going back to and beyond the amendment of its blasphemy laws in the 1980s under the rule of Zia ul Haq, display a pattern of disregard for the concerns of any minority group, and a systematic lack of interest in dealing with the issue.

This is a view articulated within Pakistan itself. Dr Medhi Hasan is chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an NGO set up in 1987. During the launch of its 2010 Annual Report Hasan, a distinguished political journalist highlighted the government's lack of ability to protect its minority citizens.

‘The problem is that most of the violations of human rights are from government functionaries or government agencies. Therefore it becomes a serious matter. If government agencies or government functionaries start violating basic human rights then who will protect the people?’ he asked at the event.

This is not a new problem. The very existence of the phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodies that translates: 'Who will guard the guardians?' is evidence enough that states failing to protect their people is not a recent phenomenon. But Pakistan seems to have failed so consistently and for so long that there must be a deeper reason than simply 'corruption' or 'greed'.

Pakistan might have been specifically on the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom Heiner Bielefeldt’s mind when he spoke at the UN Human Rights Council on 6 March about the risks to minorities, faith or otherwise, that arise from 'state sanctioned religions'.  But that does not explain the anomaly of the fact that in Pakistan it is not Islam against everyone else, but Muslims against one another and everyone else.

An alternative, or parallel explanation for Pakistan's lack of Human Rights lies in the comments of Bielefeldt's colleague, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns. As Heyns recently pointed out, ‘ . . . government's failure to take appropriate steps to prevent, investigate and punish for such acts is a violation of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.’

The implications of his words are clear: there needs to be accountability in government.  A culture of impunity cannot serve the people.

Both of these experienced UN officials make very valid observations, but the answer to the problem of human rights abuses in places like Pakistan cannot lie simply in ensuring justice and removing religion from the constitution of the state. Instead it needs to be found in changing the cultural mindset from one of majoritarianism to one of equality and plurality.

Perhaps the eighteenth-century Scottish-born social reformer and thinker Frances Wright expressed it best: 'Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.'