I DON’T know — yet — if EU foreign and security policy chief Catherine Ashton and her Pakistani hosts talked about the death threats that human rights activist and ex-Supreme Court Bar Association president Asma Jahangir says have been made against her by Pakistani security services.
But one thing is certain: the new momentum in EU-Pakistan relations reflected by Ms Ashton’s visit to Pakistan will once again wither away unless Islamabad takes quick action to clean up the country’s human rights record.
True, unlike the US, Europe’s relationship with Pakistan is not security-obsessed. That is to be expected. Although European nations have troops in Afghanistan, the deployment is through Nato, not the EU.
As such, European governments’ frustration with Pakistan’s dealings with Al Qaeda and the Taliban is voiced by the Alliance or, more powerfully, by the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta.
The EU and Pakistan aspire to have a more holistic relationship. The much-longed-for strategic dialogue launched last week by Ashton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar seeks to cover cooperation in areas of trade, investment, human rights, governance, energy, education and socioeconomic development.
Pakistan is right to try and have a more balanced foreign policy and to take a serious look at the untapped potential in its ties with Europe. It’s also about time that the EU paid sustained attention to Pakistan.
But let’s be frank: building a true long-term EU-Pakistan partnership will take time and constant effort. It will also require a change in mindsets so that Pakistan looks at Europe as more than a source of aid and a market for its textiles. The EU also needs to view Pakistan as a strategic partner which it can trust to deliver on commitments.
That’s where people like Asma Jahangir enter the picture. All the good work done by Pakistani and EU diplomats and policymakers to make the Ashton visit to Islamabad a success risks must also be seen against the reality of the grim human rights situation in the country projected by activists like her. Asma told me that at a meeting in the European Parliament on religious freedoms attended by her she had engaged in an unexpectedly robust exchange with Pakistani diplomats who were apparently angered by some of the comments made by a fellow Pakistani panellist about discrimination against Pakistan’s Christian minority.Asma told the diplomats they should be less aggressive. “It was quintessential Asma — she was polite but firm, outspoken — and balanced,” a journalist who was at the parliament told me later, adding: “She was equally tough with European parliamentarians.”
When we met, Asma shrugged off the incident as unimportant. Pakistani diplomats — or more likely the security agents in their midst — were always on the defensive at such gatherings, we agreed. And their interventions always made things worse. Rather than defend the indefensible, sometimes it makes sense for government representatives, civilian or military, to recognise state weaknesses and failures and to underline — if it is true — that the authorities are trying to correct the situation.
It is clear that as Pakistan seeks to build closer relations with the EU, the country’s human rights record is in the spotlight. And it will be increasingly so — especially in the European Parliament, the EU’s only democratically elected institution. As China is discovering to its dismay, trying to muzzle — or worse, kill — respected human rights activists, writers and journalists may bring short-term relief but is always counterproductive.
Repression is not a sign of strength. On the contrary, it spotlights a country’s insecurities and fragility. Pakistan has a lot to be defensive about. Its treatment of minorities, women and children, the callousness of an ingrained feudal system, targeted killings of independent journalists and human rights defenders are shameful reflections of a society which is in serious danger of losing its soul.
The power and swagger of what Asma calls the security establishment is another reason for dismay as is the dismal reality of the country’s squabbling politicians. But there is much that Pakistan can also be proud of, including the strength of the country’s civil society — and the courage of people like Asma and others who work incessantly to defend and give voice to Pakistan’s voiceless.
Forget the fly-by-night politicians with their glamorous clothes, the real icons, the people we should admire rather than try and shout down are the ones who see the faults of Pakistani society and try to remedy them. They are the ones people respect. They are credible when they speak because they are honest and balanced in their assessment of what is wrong — and what is right — with Pakistan.
Asma is lucky: she has friends in high places and a huge network across the world which is springing to her defence. The European Parliament will certainly ensure that Ashton and others focus on her case and more generally on human rights and the situation of minorities in Pakistan.
The rift between Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments is no secret. It is well known that the two are often at loggerheads. And that one push comes to shove, the khakis win. But it would be deeply unfortunate if the hard work to improve EU-Pakistan relations put in by Pakistan’s foreign policymakers is jeopardised by the hardline, anti-human rights stance of the security services.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.