Protectors of people’s rights

Published April 15, 2021
The writer is a human rights advocate and journalist.
The writer is a human rights advocate and journalist.

IT is difficult to imagine Pakistan without I.A. Rehman, someone for whom the word ‘irreplaceable’ feels inadequate. Throughout the country’s existence, he touched so many lives through his many contributions. He was a much-loved journalist and writer, the author of three books and countless articles, most famously on this page. He was a keen promoter of culture through his work on film and theatre. He was a brave activist, who promoted peace, resisted military rule, stood up for the rule of law, and fought for democracy.

He was a human rights defender. Like his Human Rights Commission of Pakistan colleague Kamran Arif, who also passed away recently, Rehman Sahib dedicated his life to defending the rights of others. They included families of the forcibly disappeared, whose loved ones had been wrenched away from them and placed outside the protection of the law. Journalists, who were threatened, silenced and attacked for doing their jobs. Bonded labourers, whose cruel ‘owners’ perpetuate a form of modern slavery. Religious minorities, who endure persecution for merely professing their faith. Children, who are denied a future. And so many others, whom the state had failed to protect.

Pakistan, like almost every other state, is a signatory to several international human rights treaties. These are not, as successive governments have chosen to treat them, discretionary guidelines. They are legally binding obligations, reflected in constitutions and laws, that have been assumed voluntarily and for which they are accountable before the international community. They constitute a commitment to humanity’s core values and impose upon states duties to respect, protect and fulfil them. There is a paradox to this arrangement: the very authorities that are supposed to guarantee these rights are also the ones that violate them.

This is why the work of human rights defenders like Rehman Sahib is so necessary: they hold states to account. They include researchers, who collect and disseminate information about violations. Journalists, bloggers and campaigners, who amplify the voices of victims who are not being heard. Lawyers, who help victims seek redress. Teachers helping children realise their right to education. Environmentalists, who fight for the right to a healthy and clean environment. Or doctors and nurses, who uphold the right to health. Through their work, human rights defenders do the state a service, helping support better governance and public policy.

Where states and other powerful actors fear accountability, they also fear human rights defenders.

For a modern, rights-respecting state to come about, such vigilance is needed. Under colonial rule, for example, the state saw its principal function as that of a punisher rather than a protector. The law was used as an instrument of order rather than justice. And the relationship with the people was inverted, whereby the authorities demanded obedience and assumed no duties of their own.

Sadly, states can still operate in this way, using the same coercive logic and even resorting to the same punitive laws. We see this, for example, when a peaceful demonstration calling for an end to enforced disappearances is itself perceived as an affront. Instead of criminalising the abusive practice of disappearances, the protesters are criminalised, charged with ‘rioting’, ‘unlawful assembly’, and that British colonial favourite ‘sedition’ — a charge that was constantly invoked to suppress the freedom movement in pre-Partition India, and one that Mohammad Ali Jinnah successfully defended Bal Gangadhar Tilak against in the courts more than a century ago.

Where states and other powerful actors fear accountability, they also fear human rights defenders. Across the world, governments have taken steps to try and silence defenders by subjecting them to surveillance, harassment and intimidation. They have sought to delegitimise their work by smearing them — online and in the media — as ‘foreign agents’, ‘traitors’, and ‘terrorists’. Or by accusing them of thwarting development and betraying traditional values. New restrictions have been imposed to prevent them carrying out their work. And in the worst cases, they have been subjected to unjust prosecution, torture, disappearance and even death.

Such tactics are depressingly familiar to Pakistanis. They have repeatedly seen how peaceful activists are subjected to vicious crackdowns while violent groups, by contrast, are indulged — even as they rampage through the streets, thrashing police officials and setting cities ablaze. What accounts for this difference is the pernicious idea that human rights are somehow a subversive, foreign creed that must be treated with suspicion and hostility.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Pakistan’s own human rights tradition emerged from the anti-colonial struggle, when protests were crushed with violent impunity and campaigners for freedom were consigned behind bars. Pakistan itself, as many have forgotten, was an original signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and played a key role in crafting the document.

Two key interventions on women’s rights came from the subcontinent. It was at the urging of Hansa Mehta, the noted Indian women’s rights activist, that the original draft referring only to men was reworded to read: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” And it was Begum Shaista Suharwardy Ikramullah, the Pakistani writer, politician and diplomat, who insisted on the inclusion of Article 16, prohibiting child and forced marriages.

Those who claim human rights have no universal appeal will have to justify themselves by identifying people who are content to go hungry, live homeless, forego the benefits of an education, endure torture, suffer poor health and imprisonment without a fair trial, and other affronts to human dignity that are unconscionable to people wherever they live. It is the job of governments to protect the dignity of its people, and it is the job of human rights defenders to make sure they do.

Since Rehman Sahib’s death, there have been nu­­m­­­erous tributes paid to him, in Pakistan and around the world. They included senior cabinet ministers, who lamented the loss of a “true icon” and hailed the “rich legacy” he leaves behind of “tolerance, inclusion, equality and dignity”. What a difference it wou­ld make if governments actually valued Pakistan’s human rights defenders in these terms during their lifetimes, and not only after they are gone.

The writer is a human rights advocate and journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2021

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