UPDATING and strengthening laws dealing with religiously motivated crimes, especially sectarianism and violence against non-Muslims, is a sensible and necessary move by the government. The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2016, is set to become an Act of Parliament after the National Assembly once again voted to approve the bill, this time for a version incorporating several changes recommended by the Senate. While a number of laws are affected, the core principles of the update are apparent: increase fines and jail sentences to make them more of a deterrent where the previous punishments may have become too weak; introduce specific language to target sectarian crimes and those against non-Muslims; and strengthen the police regime by requiring law enforcement to act against sectarian crimes and by enhancing the possible punishment of police officers who wilfully disregard or are negligent about their duties. The changes do suggest a stronger regime has been put in place against sectarianism and crimes against non-Muslims, too.

Yet, the law is only as effective as its implementation. And therein lies the great problem of law enforcement in Pakistan: stronger laws do not automatically or even necessarily translate into more vigorous enforcement. Consider that under the new law, the punishment for inciting religious, sectarian or ethnic hatred has been increased to three years and a more significant fine can be imposed by the courts. Arguably, a sensible move — but was the problem in the past the lesser possible sentences or that the authorities did not believe they could intervene in such matters on a routine basis? Similarly, by allowing for the punishment of local law enforcement if it does not act against sectarianism, will the entrenched police culture really be changed? While parliament may be right in addressing the matter legislatively, are the executive and the criminal justice system ready to take on the new responsibilities the country’s lawmakers are giving them?

Sectarianism and crimes against non-Muslims have a complication: while the crimes themselves are often local, it is the national culture of impunity against which they occur. So while a hate speech in one part of the country may not be directly connected to another elsewhere in the country, they both draw on the same environment of fear that has been created for members of certain sects and most non-Muslims. NAP and other national-level policies do acknowledge the organised-level dimensions of the problem, but the poor implementation is well known. As in the past, it is unlikely that simply mandating a clampdown on hate speech and incitement to violence will work. Parliament has taken the right step, but it is only a step. The hard work begins now: of changing institutional cultures to make sectarianism and crimes against non-Muslims problems that are determinedly addressed.

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2017

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