The global response

January 09, 2011


THE madness of one man is a tragedy, but the madness of a whole nation is a farce. The world is rightfully more shocked by Pakistan's reaction to Governor Salman Taseer's brutal, senseless murder than the heinous deed itself.

The collective epiphany is almost audible — everyone now knows that the rot in Pakistani society is far more poisonous than anyone believed it to be. Rose garlands and Facebook fan pages? Support for the smiling assassin from so-called moderate clerics, lawyers and assorted crazies? Muted or ambivalent mumblings passed off as condemnation by the media? It is no wonder that foreign correspondents have penned the obituary of Pakistani liberalism along with eulogies for Taseer.

In the coming months, we can expect the international community to take greater notice of the appalling state of religious freedom and the freedom of expression in Pakistan, and to carefully monitor the debate about the blasphemy law. An editorial in The New York Times recently, for example, called for the US and the world at large to express suitable outrage over Taseer's killing.

In addition to being described as the foremost exporters of terrorism, we can certainly expect to have our human rights record scrutinised and slammed. Unfortunately, we can also expect the global despondency over Pakistani society's downward spiral to have little effect on the local situation.

The fact is, such rhetoric will not transform into real repercussions anytime soon. The world, and especially the US, is more interested in Pakistan's utility in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, and the role that Islamabad might play in brokering a deal with the latter. International concerns about nuclear terrorism, regional stability and geostrategic one-upmanship also trump concerns about the state of human rights within the country. Although the US, EU and other donor countries have the option to make aid and trade deals conditional on Pakistan's rights record, they are unlikely to exercise it.

This is unfortunate because Pakistan's blasphemy law is easily discredited within the international human rights framework. Articles 295 and 298 of the PPC restrict basic freedoms of religion and expression. As pointed out in an October 2010 Freedom House report on blasphemy laws and human rights, Pakistan's law lacks safeguards against abuse since it is vague, offers no clear definitions of blasphemy and has weak evidentiary standards.

Moreover, although the United Nations has declared that the death penalty can only be imposed for the “most serious crimes” — understood to mean offences that result in the loss of life — Article 295-C makes the death penalty mandatory. The law also flouts the non-discrimination and equality principle because it protects one religion while targeting minority groups such as the Ahmadis for their beliefs. The implementation of the law also routinely leads to the violation of the right provided in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights not to be held in arbitrary detention.

While the international community will not exert direct pressure on Pakistan to address these myriad violations, there is one multilateral platform where an immediate backlash to Taseer's killing should be felt. Pakistan is currently leading a call at the United Nations for an internationally binding instrument to prohibit the defamation of religions.

Acting on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Pakistan first introduced such a resolution to the Commission on Human Rights in 1999, and similar resolutions have been passed each year since then. In October 2009, Pakistan upped the ante at the Human Rights Council by revamping its call for an international blasphemy law on the basis that defamation of religions is a form of, or catalyst for, incitement to religious hatred.

Let's first take a moment to consider the irony: Pakistan's greatest legislative stain — its blasphemy law — is currently its primary calling card in the human rights context on the international stage. One would think that we wouldn't have the audacity to champion the international implementation of a version of a law that has proven so dubious and dangerous at the domestic level.

On this front, however, many UN member states have pushed back, and are increasingly voting against the defamation of religions resolutions. They counter that an international blasphemy law violates the most basic principles of international human rights. As Freedom House puts it, the defamation of religions concept “turns human rights upside down, restricting the speech and actions of men and women for the sake of disembodied ideas”.

Lobby groups are planning to use Taseer's murder as proof that the very existence of a blasphemy law, even when it is not being directly applied, can lead to increased intolerance, incitement to hatred and religiously motivated violence within a society — and not the other way around, as Pakistan's resolution would seem to suggest. Human rights groups are hopeful that recent events in Pakistan will help discredit the defamation of religions concept.

As such, the international community's tangible response to Pakistan's blasphemy law will unfold at a distant multilateral platform, one where most Pakistanis are unaware that their government is involved in any form of advocacy.

This, however, is a good thing. As intolerance proliferates and religiously motivated violence becomes more savage and sweeping, Pakistan will have to confront the profound failings of its blasphemy law. This confrontation must be internally motivated and directed, and cannot be perceived as an external imposition. It will also have to occur simultaneously in the streets and schools, in mosques, parliament and the courts.

The long process of re-evaluating, and eventually repealing, the law will only come to fruition if it is not delegitimised in any way. As it turns out, all our lives might depend on it.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.