Human Rights in Pakistan--The Way Forward | Wilson Center

Human Rights in Pakistan--The Way Forward

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An Asia Program Event
Co-sponsored by the Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights

Asma Jehangir, Pakistan's most prominent human rights advocate, painted a dark picture of the human rights situation in Pakistan at a Nov. 1 Wilson Center event, and warned that the longer the army remains in power, the more probable it is that militant extremists will eventually gain control of Pakistan. The country's disaffected, she cautioned, are far more likely to flock to religious organizations and militant groups than to the ostensibly secular political parties popular among Western observers. If Pakistan is to become the moderate progressive country that President Pervez Musharraf holds out as his objective, it must "demilitarize" itself and regain a political culture.

Jehangir illustrated her contention about the dismal human rights conditions in Pakistan by detailing three prominent rape cases with which she has been associated as legal counsel, including the Mukhtaran Mai case that has received considerable attention in the West in recent months, and which prompted Musharraf to tell the Washington Post that Pakistani women try to get raped in order to obtain visas to the West so that they can become rich. In each of the three instances she detailed, Jehangir argued, justice has been consistently thwarted by those in authority, and the victims have been further victimized.

Just back from visiting Kashmir, which suffered a devastating earthquake last month, Jehangir reported that the army's manifest inability to provide basic necessities to the earthquake victims has stripped away the claim to competence that the Pakistani military has used to justify its rule in Pakistan. Three organizations that have been banned by the government for their links to terrorism have been most active and most visible in getting life-sustaining supplies to the victims, she declared, and have won considerable support from even apolitical Kashmiris for their humanitarian work.

While on several occasions declining the opportunity to criticize Washington directly for its support for the Musharraf regime, her belief that the United States bears considerable responsibility for the "nightmare" in Pakistan was obvious. The marriage of the Pakistani military, the mullahs, and the United States (or as Pakistanis themselves frequently put it, the 3 A's: the army, Allah, and America) has "stunted" Pakistan. When asked about the responsibility of Islam for Pakistan's woes, she remarked that although she herself is not a religious person, Pakistan's problem is not Islam, but people who misuse their religion for political purposes.

Retired American diplomat Larry Robinson, who closely monitored Pakistani human rights conditions for many years, and who only recently returned from a two-year posting in Islamabad, agreed with Jehangir's portrait of Pakistan as a "highly dysfunctional society," but differed with her by pointing to Pakistan's feudal character and its continued emphasis on caste and clan as principal explanations for Pakistan's many shortcomings. Robinson emphasized how Pakistani society in all its dimensions is dominated by a handful of wealthy families, whose power is largely unfettered by institutional checks such as a strong judicial system. Caste, he observed, is not a manifestation only of Hinduism. Islam is in many respects the most egalitarian of all the world's major religions, yet in Punjab and Sindh, the two largest of Pakistan's four provinces, virtually everyone is conscious of their standing in the caste ranking – a situation that tends to reinforce rigid stratification, discourage challenges to the status quo, and make economic development almost impossible. Taking issue with Jehangir's position that the military is the root cause of most of the abuses in Pakistan, Robinson argued instead that while the army (easily the most influential of the three branches of Pakistan's armed services) oppresses the political and social elite in Pakistan, this political/social elite oppresses everyone else. He gave credit to Musharraf for trying to break with the past. Jehangir vigorously disagreed, saying that Musharraf has made a "stinking system" even more stinking.

Jehangir and Robinson agreed that as bad as human rights conditions are, Pakistan is not a hopeless case, and that there remains some reason for optimism in looking toward the future. Jehangir pointed to a history of elections (however flawed in many instances), the existence of trade unions, political parties, and bar associations, a vigorous civil society, and a feisty press. The United States, Robinson declared, must push Islamabad to empower the people and to strengthen the civil service, upgrade the education system, and foster an independent judiciary. But none of these tasks will be achieved overnight, he warned; the world must be patient. Jehangir's analysis, on the other hand, led many in the audience to wonder whether Pakistan could afford a patient, long-term view.

Drafted by Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020