THE notion of human rights has gradually been stripped of its moral legitimacy. It has been reduced to little more than a fiction, laid bare of any substance and consigned to the inaccessible echelons of our society — a paper tiger, to be unleashed only for abstruse debates and holier-than-thou table talk.

In theory, human rights find a rather sacred place in our Constitution. Our lawyers are trained to think of them as ‘fundamental’ rights, inherent in every individual and inalienable in nature, while the arms of our state are charged with their protection and preservation.

In practice, this model remains largely abandoned, and the evidence of this desertion is littered all around us: be it the unlicensed murder of voices of dissent; the unchecked rise in incidents of mob violence and vigilante justice; the unabashed sponsorship of torture and extra-judicial killing by our state apparatus; the institutional discrimination against religious minorities; or the subtly imposed restrictions on our avenues of dialogue and discussion.

We are well versed in these transgressions. They are relentlessly discussed in our drawing rooms, circulated through social media and are fodder for infotainment — and we gluttonously digest them. This is not to say that there is no sign of protest — since sections of our civil society have been untiringly campaigning against such violations — but despite this sporadic activism, neither the state nor society at large appear responsive.


The lack of grass-roots advocacy has rendered human rights an academic, rather than a political, pursuit.


The impending question, then, is this: why is it that, despite the presence of a robust legal mechanism for the enforcement of fundamental rights, the violation of fundamental rights still persists and, more often than not, goes without redress? The answer requires careful introspection into our approach towards human rights.

The foremost reason is that our state has failed to create a human rights culture within its institutions. The notion of rights and corresponding responsibilities is not instinctual; it needs to be actively fostered. Our state, rather than taking up the challenge, has shied away from its duty to do so — an attitude that borders on gross negligence.

It is worth noting that much of the unchecked violations of human rights in Pakistan occurs more due to the absence of the state rather than its excess — the instances of violence against people accused of blasphemy and those defending them, the wholesale targeted killings of ethnic and religious minorities, and the oppression of women in our society primarily stem not from the state, but from the public.

In such circumstances, the state automatically absolves itself of any guilt, since the appropriate remedy for such victims is criminal prosecution. However, what the state fails to acknowledge is that this absence is only a by-product of its own inaction. While it may not be actively perpetrating these actions, its indifference fosters an environment for such violence to actualise. Unless the state decides to make the protection of our rights a priority, no amount of advocacy or lobbying for human rights will make a significant difference.

A secondary reason — one that is often overlooked — is that the human rights strategy employed by civil society fails to grapple with the fact that the human rights project has come to be mistrusted. It is increasingly seen as an imperialistic mission; a hegemonic tool constructed by the ‘crafty’ West in order to displace our existing traditional and religious values, and supplant them with amoral, liberal ideas.

While it is tempting to brush this off as conspiratorial — the rationale is understandable. The language of human rights has often been employed by the West as a pretext for invasion: Afghani women needed ‘emancipation’ from the oppressive Taliban; Iraqi citizens needed ‘protection’ from a ruthless Saddam Hussein; the Libyans needed ‘liberation’ from a pitiless Muammar Qadhafi; and, now, Syrians require ‘deliverance’ from the chemical attacks of Bashar al-Assad. The hypocrisy of international law is unquestionable — especially when the US and its allies face allegations of doing much the same, but with absolute impunity.

Whether the human rights regime is truly complicit in engineering international inequity is consequential. The rhetoric alone has done enough damage, generating an unhealthy dose of scepticism in our society. The more conservative among us have begun treating the regime as some unholy elitist mission, hell-bent on subverting Pakistani religiosity, while the establishment has come to view it as an impediment to national security – particularly where cases of sedition or terrorism are concerned. For this is where patience runs thin, the old adage of necessity kicks in, and civil liberties are courteously escorted out of the door.

Our fundamental error lies in our failure to engage with this mistrust and cynicism. Thus far, our modus operandi has been limited to two methods: lobbying the government, and a string of sporadic public-interest litigation that seeks redress through the judiciary. A common characteristic is that both are state-centric, leaving out the largest obstacle to safeguarding rights — public opinion.

It is high time that human rights, as a socio-legal project, got a reappraisal. The lack of focus on grass-roots advocacy has rendered it an academic, rather than a political pursuit, couched in obscure jargon and accessible only to a privileged and educated class. The debate for human rights needs to be taken to local forums and, for that to be done, our conception of rights needs to be indigenised, dressed in an ideology that does not seem so foreign and alien to us.

It is impractical for us to continue to find our legitimacy in international obligations and progressive norms, and pertinent that we begin reclaiming the narrative around it by finding our justifications closer to home — our own homespun local ethos.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2016

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