"Human rights in Pakistan: Challenges of
orthodoxy and Autocracy"
It is often argued that the ideal of human rights first enunciated
in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a Western
concept, a luxury -- like democracy -- that only wealthy countries
can afford. Examples are given of how the West has finally arrived
at a comfortable balance between economic security and individual
rights, having long ago overcome situations like those prevailing
today in many developing countries. Isn't it far better, it is
argued, to emulate the Asian Tigers, which have gone about the
task of nation-building by concentrating on economic development
and providing decent standards of living; so they haven't granted
individual and political freedoms but at least people have food
The latter option is flawed in that it envisages autocratic governance.
This has been rejected by human experience on the grounds that
it lacks the mechanism to guarantee a benevolent, wise, and incorruptible
rule and smooth transition of power. It is not even a guarantee
of stable development. The recent collapse of their economies
has shown that even the so-called Asian Tigers have claws of clay.
What is needed is a multi-pronged, holistic way of development,
which aims at economic prosperity and a just social order that
guarantees fundamental freedoms. Is this possible in Pakistan
given the conflicts that the country is undergoing? Several major
factors bar the way:
1. Intolerance and religious extremism;
2. Lack of socio-economic development;
3. Relations with India;
4. Authoritarian governments.
Since these factors are inter-linked, there will be some overlapping
while discussing them.
1. Intolerance and religious extremism
The biggest threat to human rights in Pakistan today is growing
intolerance within society, largely due to the religious militancy
and extremism which have visibly increased since the Afghan War.
Intolerance has been reinforced by discriminatory laws enacted
in the name of religion, and political expediency by successive
This has led not just to greater discrimination against non-Muslims,
it has caused sectarian confrontation within the Muslim population,
conflict between the orthodoxy and liberals over observance of
social mores, and a running polarisation between political right
and left. Today, we are faced with two stark choices: modernisation
and development, or regression into tribalism.
The conflict between these trends is intensified by increasing
exposure to the outside world on the one hand (for example through
expatriate labour), access to the satellite dish and the internet,
and education, particularly of girls and women even in remote
villages and rural areas. On the other hand is the 'talibanisation'
of society, fed by thousands of religious seminaries across the
country, functioning with government sanction and even money,
besides covert funds from other Islamic countries.
It is the latter that most threatens individual freedoms in the
country. The optimistic see it as the last gasp of a dying order.
The more visible the modernisation, and the more girls and women
get educated and go out to work, the fiercer is the reaction from
the orthodox who feel that these developments threaten their very
existence -- as indeed they do. The threat comes through changing
ideas, not force; the result is loss of power, and the retaliation
is often violent because bigotry cannot stand up to debate and
The country's domestic, economic and foreign policies have been
as much of a factor in the development of both strains -- and
the resulting conflict -- as the role of the outside world. The
final outcome, whichever trend eventually prevails, will also
be determined by both.
The impact of outside players: Over the last twenty years particularly,
Pakistan's domestic and foreign policies have directly and indirectly
contributed to the rise of the religious extremism, which has
also been given a boost by policies of countries like the USA.
During the Afghan war, religious forces were supported because
it suited the United State's agenda of fighting communism. It
is ironic that Osama bin Laden is the most wanted man for the
CIA, on whose payroll he once operated. The USA also propped up
Gen. Ziaul Haq's military dictatorship with financial, military,
and moral support, ignoring the human rights abuses perpetuated
by his regime; Pakistan tailored its foreign policy accordingly.
This is not a closed chapter. The taliban are today castigated
and condemned world-wide - but tomorrow, if it suits the Western
interests to have the taliban over-running Pakistan, what is the
guarantee that these so-called champions of democracy will not
again proceed accordingly?
Impact of national policies: Although Ziaul Haq has been dead
and gone these past twelve years, Pakistan has not done anything
to reverse or counter the phenomenon that was given momentum by
the Afghan War. On the contrary, by constantly capitulating to
their demands, the leadership of Pakistan has encouraged religious
parties into thinking that it is their approval which bestows
upon a government the stamp of legitimacy, of being 'Islamic',
rather than the democratic process of general elections. No general
election has ever given the religious parties more than a combined
three or four per cent of the seats in the assemblies; the electorate
has simply never voted for them. Realising that they can never
attain power through the democratic process, they have thus decided
to eschew this process and bludgeon their way into policy and
decision-making, never mind democracy.
Intolerance and religious and gender discrimination, already
prevelant over much of South Asia, have in Pakistan been reinforced
by laws which promote and sanctify these trends. Many of these
laws were introduced as part of his Islamisation policy by Gen.
Ziaul Haq who used religion to justify his stint in power - as
all governments in Pakistan have done. They include the Hudood
Ordinance, the so-called Blasphemy law, and the separate electorate
system, and the setting up of the Shariat (Islamic laws) Courts
which are above constitution.
The Hudood Ordinance, instituted in 1979 by Gen. Zia, institutionalises
discrimination against women. It made sex outside marriage a cognizable
offence (a crime against the state) and rape a personal crime.,
it places the focus of public morality on women, and has encouraged
the institution of false adultery cases against women for ulterior
motives like property or wanting a second marriage.
Rape victims risk being charged with adultery if they cannot
prove the rape charges. The Qisas and Diyat law further undermines
the status of women by equating two women with one man as witnesses
in court, and also providing a lesser compensation for women than
men in criminal cases.
Pakistan is perhaps the only country where the phenomenon of
'honour killings' is increasing instead of decreasing. The custom
of killing a woman for sex outside marriage is rooted in custom
rather than religion, pre-dating Islam. It originated in ancient
times probably in the Middle East, but has also been prevalent
Northern Africa and in Latin and Greek cultures (remember Zorba
the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn), and over parts of the Indian
Sub-Continent. In effect, Islam discouraged such false accusation
as well as such killings by prescribing a strict condition of
witnesses -- at least four adult men of good character had to
see the actual act of penetration before guilt could be established
and the punishment of death meted out.
This condition has been interpreted in Pakistan to the detriment
of rape victims who risk being found guilty of sex outside marriage
if they cannot produce such witnesses, since their complaint of
rape is then seen as 'confession' of 'intercourse'. Although Islam
prescribes strict punishments for false accusations, no one has
ever been punished for this crime, even though the higher courts
have almost invariably found the women accused of zina to be not
guilty. Still, the mere accusation of adultery remains enough
to kill women, or throw them into prison until sentence is pronounced.
Since the Hudood Ordinances came into being, thousands of women
have been incarcerated on accusations of zina, whereas before,
compared to the one or two such accusations before.
It is significant that in most countries where the custom of
honour killings prevailed, laws have been made and implemented
to discourage such murders. In Pakistan, on the other hand, not
only do laws like the Hudood Ordinances and even judgements by
superior courts reinforce the concept of women aslesser beings,
no law has been made to outlaw such practice. Far from it, the
Senate (Upper House of Parliament) rejected by a thumping majority
a resolution condemning honour killings, and the government is
even considering enacting a law to justify them.
Other customs still prevalent include sale of women in marriage,
marriage to Quran, being used as 'gifts' as settlement of tribal
dispute and the distribution of the widow along with the rest
of the property of a deceased.
The Blasphemy law (Section 295-C) similarly makes it easy to
discriminate against religious minorities by providing severe
punishment for offences like 'injuring religious sentiments of
Muslims', and capital punishment for those found guilty of insulting
the Prophet Mohammed. Since what injures one Muslim's sentiments
may have no effect on another, it leaves the issue open to interpretation,
providing the unscrupulous a means to settle personal scores.
False charges of blasphemy have been levelled, and then lower
courts intimidated by virtual siege to pronounce convinction.
Again, no one has ever been punished for making false accusations.
The separate electorate system denies religious minorities their
share in governance and political representation, effectively
cutting them off from the mainstream by making them vote only
for their co-religionists on reserved seats. Their votes are thus
irrelevant to the major political parties. Meanwhile, in the area
where there should be reserved seats, for women, the provision
has been allowed to lapse, while in many areas, women are not
allowed to exercise their right to vote.
But even before Ziaul Haq, a law passed by parliament under Z.A.
Bhutto, laid the foundation for systematic persecution of the
Ahmedis, who were officially declared to be non-Muslim. They were
not only prohibited from calling themselves Muslim, but also doing,
saying or writing anything that would even suggest that they belonged
to that faith. The persecution has been a systematic one. For
example, the information demanded in application forms for Pakistani
passports includes the applicant's religion. Those who write that
they are Muslim have to also sign an affidavit denouncing as be
an imposter and a non-Muslim Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, the spiritual
leader of the Ahmedis.
More recently, religious extremism was given a great boost in
August last year, when the government proposed a new law to overarch
all Islamic laws, Constitutional Amendment 15 which not only aimed
to make Quran and Sunnah the supreme law of the land, but also
to give government total power to ordain what it thought right
according to Islam and prohibit what is wrong. This law, if passed
by the Senate this coming March, will enable the government to
supersede all other laws and empower it to decide between what
it considered right and wrong.
2. Unequal development and administrative failures
The focus on religion (as a panacea) and women/morality (as a
problem) diverts from the real issues, rooted in economic deprivation
and unequal development. During the Afghan Jehad and since, no
attempts were made to improve the infrastructure or to bring about
progressive societal changes in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The main
beneficiaries in areas of deprivation are drug barons and warlords,
who always benefit from conflict situations and exploit administrative
failures for their own gains.
For example when the exploitative Provincially Administered Tribal
Areas (PATA) Regulations in the north of Pakistan were struck
down as unconstitutional in 1994 by the Supreme Court, it left
an administrative vacuum. Using the availability of arms and ammunition
in the area, along with the presence of many tribesmen who had
fought in the Afghan War, the power-mongers there were able to
recruit a large armed force under the banner of Sharia or Islamic
The concern over the rise of 'talibanisation' rarely goes beyond
the surface to what has contributed to this phenomenon: deprivation
and the denial of basics like health, education and employment
opportunities. This is one of the factors behind the increasing
number of boys being sent into madrassahs (religious seminaries),
where they are at least guaranteed food, shelter, some kind of
education and even employment as
The fact that most of these madrassahs are sectarian in nature,
perpetuating the belief that all those of rival sects are non-Muslim,
has contributed to the increasing sectarian violence in the country.
The only thing that all these sects agree upon is that the others
are infidels, along with Ahmedis and pro-democracy, pro-human
rights workers; many consider it legitimate to wipe out these
'ideological enemies of the state'. The government encourages
them by studiously turning a deaf ear to their calls for such
murders, and on occasion actively and publicly encouraging them
to 'take care' of these enemies, as Nawaz Sharif did, for example,
when CA 15 was being tabled.
Lack of social services The other day, a small boy, no more than
six years old, barefoot and in tatters under the burning sun,
tried to clean my car for a rupee or two. I asked him where his
parents were, but he couldn't speak enough to articulate anything.
For him, and for his family, the concept of human rights doesn't
exist. They don't have adequate food, shelter or clothes. Clean
drinking water, healthcare and education are light years away...
There are millions like him in Pakistan, living in abject poverty
without a future. And yet this country spends most of its budget
on maintaining a huge army, on defence and nuclear weapons, rather
than developing the social sector to ensure that little children
don't beg on the streets.
The conflict between modernisation and tradition is common to
many developing countries, particularly those with colonial pasts.
Problems are exacerbated by the clash between thoughtless, unplanned
development and traditional practices and beliefs, with adherents
to the latter becoming even more rigid in clinging to what they
know best rather than risk entering a new world of frightening
changes. These tensions are heightened by increasing economic
hardships and flux.
The government's responsibility: In Pakistan the conflict has
been accentuated by a combination of authoritarianism and the
use of religion for political purposes. Unlike the Asian Tigers
which have maintained secular polities and at least provided basic
social services despite their authoritarianism, the military dictatorships
and dictatorial civilian governments in Pakistan have not improved
these either. Most of the population continues to live in medieval
times - with medieval mindsets which can kill for wealth, women,
land (zar, zan, zameen). Add to this the concept of honour and
the tendency to kill for sreligion, and you have a combustible
situation. These concerns, besides that of obtaining two square
meals a day, tend to overshadow fundamental rights like freedom
Lack of awareness about fundamental freedoms and the people's
preoccupation with survival does not absolve the government from
its responsibility of providing these freedoms. But the government
and its various arms use lack of awareness and people's acceptance
of their lot, as an opportunity to not provide these freedoms,
and indeed to violate them.
Domestic or international pressure about human rights violations
brings about a typically knee-jerk reaction from the government.
A detained editor is released (weeks after being kidnapped), cases
against a newspaper organisation are suspended -- for the moment,
officers in charge are suspended with great fanfare, money is
doled out to families of raped women and children, threats are
made about ensuring that the culprits are hung in public (as they
were in Zia's time), but little is done to redress the pattern
of violence and create a more just order.
Instead, the government uses social deprivations to make populist
noises, as Bhutto did with his popular slogan of 'roti kapra aur
makan' (bread, clothes and housing). Another popular slogan is
'speedy justice' - a concept which further subverts the judiciary
and the legal process.
Fundamental freedoms like right to dissent and political participation,
freedom of speech and expression, freedom from arbitrary arrests,
police excesses and torture, remain elusive dreams. Freedom of
movement is assailed by liberal use of the law that empowers government
to bar travel abroad (Exit from Pakistan Control Ordinance, introduced
by Zia); freedom of association is under pressure with strong
official criticism of NGOs and plans to bring in a new law to
restrict their freedom; and a draconian anti-terrorism law and
anti-terrorism courts make a mockery of the rule of law.
Promises made are never fulfilled - if they were, we wouldn't
today have the horrific 'economic suicides', with people burning
themselves to death because they or their families don't have
enough food to eat. But the slogans continue.
It is ironic that the present government was elected into power
on the basis of its manifesto promises like building the economy
and improving relations with India. But although some efforts
were made towards these ends, there is today a complete subversion
The section of society most bitterly opposed to improving relations
with India are the religious groups, for whom, since the end of
the Afghan Jehad, Kashmir has increasingly become an ideological
3. The India factor
Pakistan's relations with India cannot be de-linked from the
domestic situation, because hostilities contribute to and feed
dangerous trends in both countries. The continuing human rights
violations in Kashmir feed religious militancy in Pakistan, as
does India's intransigence in refusing to discuss the issue. When
the campaign against the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya gave the religious
parties in India a rallying point, it also gave a momentum to
the religious parties in Pakistan.
India's testing of nuclear devices at Pokhran in 1974 and then
again in May 1998 cannot be condemned strongly enough, among other
things, for contributing to tensions in the region and triggering
off a dangerous arms race. When supporters of the nuclear tests
were shown celebrating and distributing sweets in India, the tension
mounted in Pakistan, only to find relief in matching celebrations
when the mountain trembled in Chaghi. India's recently announced
nuclear doctrine with its unabashedly aggressive stance has only
further upped the ante.
Tensions with India, and its nuclear programme impacts Pakistan
as a smaller neighbouring country which feels constantly threatened
by what it perceives as Indian aggression, and which uses these
factors to justify its own massive defence expenditure and unsustainable
nuclear policy which divert resources from the social sector.
Relations with India are also used as a pretext to subvert fundamental
rights in Pakistan, like the freedom of information and expression.
Other common justifications for such violations are tradition,
religion, and honour. The bogey of national security is used to
justify human rights violations like the detention of Friday Times
Editor Najam Sethi, ostensibly for a speech made in 'enemy territory',
but actually for his publication's independent and critical stand
against the government of the day. Subsequent to his release after
no charges could be proven against him, a case has been made against
him to de-bar him from voting as a Muslim, forcing him to defend
his religious credentials.
Any independent-minded journalist or publication is open to this
charge, just as all the NGOs and individuals working for human
rights and political awareness are tarnished with the brush of
'un-patriotism' and even 'treason', and persecuted accordingly.
Another example is the situation that developed over the Line
of Control between India and Pakistan, at Kargil. In the name
of national security, the people of both countries were denied
their right to know what was happening, and why -- not to mention
the number of lives lost in this useless conflict. A flood of
propaganda and misinformation on both sides contributed to a potentially
catastrophic situation, given both countries' possession and flaunting
of their nuclear weapons.
This underlines two important points relevant to the human rights
debate: the lack of consultative decision making, and the nurturing
of stereotypes that encourage the existing 'us' and 'them' perceptions,
used by communities and individuals to justify violence and threats
against the 'other'. The Kargil crisis has thrown up questions
like who authorised the operation in the first place, and why?
Why was the at least the cabinet committee on defence not consulted?
Why are decision-making mechanisms of the country so weak? These
questions are not being addressed or debated either in public
fora or in the house of people's representatives.
4. Subverting democracy
The tendency of elected civilian governments in Pakistan to take
on the traits of dictatorship includes intolerance of dissent
and criticism -- subverting the promise of freedom and liberty
made at Independence over 50 years ago. Authoritarianism and the
tendency to make arbitrary decisions without consulting parliament
or cabinet, let alone the opposition or the federating units,
is a constant reminder that prime minister Nawaz Sharif is a protege
of the late Gen. Zia. A continuation of Zia's repressive policies
is visible not in just the government's continuing support of
the religious parties in one way or another. If Zia gagged the
press and had journalists arrested, even flogged, his successors
through various strong arm tactics have ensured that the press
exercises a large dose of self-censorship. The continuing intolerance
of those in power to criticism and dissent encourages intolerance
in all aspects of society, reducing the space for dissent and
The slogan of 'speedy justice' finds a perverted interpretation
in the increasingly obvious fake police 'encounters' in which
'terrorists' are regularly eliminated, a phenomenon particularly
visible in Karachi at present. Police privately justify their
actions by saying that this is the only way to rid society of
known criminals who will only get bailed out if brought to trial
- but it is also a very convenient way to rid of political opponents.
Three elected governments were dismissed by presidents using
the powers vested in them through a constitutional amendment introduced
by Zia. Not keen on being booted out a second time, Sharif in
his second tenure has abolished these powers. He has reduced other
potential threats to his tenure by sending packing a chief justice,
a chief of army staff and a president before completion of their
tenures. Further attempts to gather power are obvious in his introduction
of the controversial 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which
under the garb of Islamic law, would centre power more firmly
in the prime minister's hands.
The despotic trend is also visible in how Islamabad deals with
the federating units. When Nawaz Sharif announced that his government
would build the controversial Kalabagh Dam, opposed by Sindh and
NWFP, even cabinet members were taken by surprise. His government's
recent decision to sell off the Karachi Electrical Supply Corporation
in order to pay for the Daewoo-built Motorway that serves only
the Punjab, is another example of the high-handedness which is
causing resentment and undermining democratic principles.
The opposition's protests have now been made more difficult by
the Anti-Terrorist Activities Act, which was recently amended
by presidential ordinance, declaring the right to strike or public
protest to be an act of terrorism. So on the one hand, there is
a denial of rights, and on the other, protests against discrimination
are labelled as criminal and terrorist activities carrying severe
punishment. The recent amendment has been challenged in the Lahore
High Court as being against fundamental rights - but why should
it have to come to that.
Lack of participatory decision-making, the lack of freedom of
information and expression, combined with the state's own tendency
to violent methods to crush dissent, has contributed to a culture
of fear and aggression, in which human rights cannot flourish,
and which will only strengthen the forces of the militant right.
Resentment in the provinces is dangerous. The perception that
the Punjab-dominated government is not giving the provinces their
due rights, is substantiated by such issues and exacerbates communal
and ethnic conflicts. The fears of ethnicity, identity, religion
or language being threatened can have grave consequences, as we
saw in 1971, when a civil war between the eastern and western
wings of Pakistan led to the creation of the independent state
of Bangladesh, with the active involvement of Indira Gandhi's
Today, India accuses Pakistan of interfering in Kashmir. But
like East Pakistan, the uprising in Kashmir owes more to the state's
misrule and human rights violations, than to the enemy, who may
exploit the situation but who certainly hasn't created it. Armed
unrest exacerbates regional tensions and provides more room for
human rights violations. Hostilities increase as militant statements
in the press and electronic media blame other governments for
the conflict, ignoring the fact that there is a basis for discontent,
and that unrest originally stemmed from political neglect.
To conclude, it is a combination of all these factors that endanger
human rights in Pakistan. It is important for the media, particularly
in the West, to understand the complexities of the situation rather
than tarnishing an entire region or people with the same brush.
Stereotyping only contributes to more militancy and makes it more
difficult for human rights activists to operate. By condemning
Pakistan as a 'rogue state' while ignoring the human rights abuses
in its rival India, particularly Kashmir, only strengthens the
militant right in both countries.
Short-sighted policies implemented for political expediency in
Pakistan or abroad, will lead to the strengthening of a taliban-like
order which will have long-term negative impacts, not just for
Pakistan but for the entire region and beyond. For Pakistan, it
will spell economic disaster and the end of democracy and human
rights, isolating it as a pariah in the world community. A nuclear
pariah, which the world cannot afford to ignore.
This is why the world must link demands for guarantees of human
rights in Pakistan with economic cooperation with that country,
and this is why the people of Pakistan must organise and resist
attempts to sweep them back into the dark ages. For this, there
must be economic development, and education, and the people provided
basic necessities like the 'roti, kapra aur makan' promised to
them in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the burning question remains, will the forces of retrogression
that currently appear to dominate, allow the other, quieter revolution
of human rights awareness and education to bear fruit -- and can
they stop it in today's global village?