Is the Tide Turning for Human Rights in Pakistan with the Resumption of Democracy?

Seminar hosted by The Democracy Forum at the London School of Economics May 17th

On 17 May 2010, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne chaired a seminar at the London School of Economics on the emotive question: Is the Tide Turning for Human Rights inPakistanwith the Resumption of Democracy? An audience of several dozen academics, students and members of the press gathered for the debate, and four eminent speakers sat on the panel: Robert Evans, former MEP and Chair of the European Parliamentary Delegation for the Pakistan Elections; Salim Malik, Human Rights Co-ordinator for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association; Krishna Bhan, Chairman of the Hindu Council, UK, and Professor Chetan Bhatt, Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, LSE.

After a brief welcome by Baroness Nicholson, the proceedings opened with a talk by Robert Evans, author of the 2008 report onPakistan’s National and Provincial Assembly Elections. Referring to the debate as “timely and important”, and to himself as a “friend ofPakistanand the countries of South Asia”, Mr Evans commented on the serious security issues that have impacted onPakistan, before raising a laugh by relating an anecdote about his pre-election meeting with General Musharraf when he mentioned allegations that the election would be rigged. The general turned to one of his ministers who stated emphatically that, “My department is not in charge of vote-rigging.” – the implication being that some other department was.  Back to a more serious note, Mr Evans said that Musharraf’s defeat has proved “one of the fundamental features of a democracy – that a government can fall” as a result of elections. Nevertheless, he expressed disappointment at the low turnout inPakistan’s recent elections – a mere 45 per cent – and feared that too many Pakistanis feel disenfranchised. Mr Evans also spoke of his concern regarding current instability inPakistan, and the continuing power of the military, which “may not be directly accountable” to parliament and may be “subverting some of the [country’s] political and judicial structures”. He touched, too, on the various humanitarian issues affectingPakistan, including suicide bombings, detentions, disappearances, women’s rights and the need to involve women more closely in the electoral process. The role of the media in this process, he urged, needs to be strong, autonomous and unbiased.

Mr Evans summed up by saying that the international community must continue to watch developments in Pakistan on subjects like human rights and extremism, the primary enemy of democracy.

Next to speak was Salim Malik, whose talk had a powerful impact on the audience. He began by asserting that “a country [whose] electoral system is based on the faith of a person and not on his loyalty as a citizen can be called anything but a democracy.” Citing various articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mr Malik stressed that fundamental rights such as free speech and suffrage must be guaranteed to every citizen if a state wishes to be known as a democracy. YetPakistan’s minority Ahmadi community, of which he is a member, has not had these rights respected, and indeed Ahmadi Muslims are targeted by the country’s electoral system, which uses aspects of their faith to deprive them of their vote. “Now you, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr Malik informed the audience, “must decide if that reflects true democracy.” The observers from Pakistan’s High Commission were in his sights for much of this address.

On the question of turning tides, Mr Malik referred to the background of the Ahmadi issue. In 1974, when Islam was established by law in Pakistan, the Ahmadis were declared ‘non-Muslim’ by the constitution – “probably the first constituent assembly in the world to decide on the faith of [its] people” – and they have been routinely persecuted by the government, accused of unIslamic practices and specifically targeted by draconian blasphemy laws. They remain unprotected by the law; indeed, warned Mr Malik, the law and the police are ‘the handmaidens’ of the persecutors. The advent of democracy may have brought hope to the Ahmadi Muslims inPakistan, he said, but this has not translated into practice. The cases he cited were alarming – the extremist murders in 2008/9 of 50 people whose only ‘crime’ was professing to be Ahmadi; kidnappings and violent attacks against Ahmadis – and even pressure from the international community has not led to full investigations or prosecution of the perpetrators.

Ending on a poignant note, Mr Malik referred to Jonathan Swift’s wise and very pertinent sentiments: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love each other.”

Krishna Bhan was up next. She said that, “without democracy there can be no human rights”. Mrs Bhan reminded the audience thatPakistanremains only a “transitional democracy”, and it was still feeling the effects of military power. Government and political parties face huge challenges, especially that “greatest threat” from the Taliban and extremists and from various other anti-state elements.

The main theme of Professor Chetan Bhatt’s speech was the conflicting dynamics that are at work today inPakistan. He began his talk by stressing that there is so much at stake for the country in terms of democracy and human rights. Positive developments such as the establishment of a federal ministry of human rights and various constitutional amendments should be welcomed as moves in the right direction, he agreed, but human rights inPakistanstill face huge challenges, which would get bigger over time. Welcome as a return to civilian government may be, said Professor Bhatt, true democratic government is “much more than electoral democracy”, involving protection of citizens from violence, and other instruments relating to equality, discrimination and so forth. A key aspect of real democratisation and human rights is: what is the gap between declaration, implementation and enforcement? Any democratically elected government who wants to be successful must address these questions, and also “face issues relating to its legitimacy, authority and competence”, and Professor Bhatt argued that in these regards,Pakistanis still found wanting, especially in its continued harbouring of terrorist groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. What kind of democracy is it, he asked, that establishes terrorist training camps, and the authorities join hands with them to blow up hotels, trains and aircraft? It is important, ifPakistanwants to be seen as a democratic country, that it puts an end to these sorts of activities.

On the question of the Pakistani military, the professor said that it has long seen the “impulse to democratisation” as “disorder”, and he echoed Mr Evans’ concerns regarding its (and the ISI’s) lack of accountability. Indeed, many groups inPakistan– including militia groups, the religious right and certain aspects of the landed and political classes – see genuine democracy and universal human rights as “inherent threats”, to be answered with violence. He also depicted the relationship between the state and certain groups in civil society as “ambiguous”, highlighting the complicity between the police, politicians and other agencies regarding human rights violations.

The rise of democracy will always lead to the rise of its opponents, Professor Bhatt warned, and the integrity of human rights inPakistantoday faces “an important challenge”. There are those, such as the Talinan, he acknowledged, who see such human rights as “a western imposition” and all those who try to implement them as legitimate targets for violent attacks. Let us all, he urged, develop a “new vision for what democracy and human rights must be”.

After the speakers finished, Baroness Nicholson invited Mr Zakaria, Political Secretary from the Pakistan High Commission, to respond.Pakistanhad come under a lot of criticism from all the speakers and Mr Malik in particular gave them a roasting. Mr Zakaria appeared quite apologetic. He assured Mr Malik that he would take up the issues of the persecution of the Ahmadiyyas with the Pakistan Government. He also declared that the Pakistani press was now free. He went on to argue that the West was to blame for supporting the military dictatorships and that most of the problems were created during those times.

Comments from the floor were limited, but focused on the relationship between human rights and duty. Dr Ahmad Jalali pointed out the Asian philosophy that ‘rights are duty-orientated’, while the Western mindset is more geared towards ‘duty being rights-orientated’.

There was a wine and canapé function after the seminar and the speakers mingled with the audience. Lively discussions took place. The Pakistani representatives did not appear at the function, which went on until 10pm.