The following is a speech delivered by Prof. Javaid Rehman during a webinar ’40 Minutes on Human Rights with…’

Thank you very much for this invitation to speak on Religious Minorities in Pakistan.  

It would be useful to provide you with a brief background on the subject.  I will then move on to some of the current concerns relating to minority rights in Pakistan, and finally I will provide some recommendations for future policy actions, particularly pertinent to the UK government.

Pakistan, as you know, was carved out of British India and emerged as an independent, sovereign state on 14 August 1947.  The raison d’etre of the new State was to safeguard the interest of Muslim minorities – who it was feared would be otherwise subjugated and discriminated in a Hindu majority India.  This religious-based incision of India also resulted in a physically anomalous Pakistan, geographically separated by nearly 1000 into the two wings of ‘West Pakistan’ and ‘East Pakistan’.  East Pakistan seceded from Pakistan in December 1971 to what is now Bangladesh.  

Notwithstanding its religious antecedents, Mohammad Ali Jinnah the founder and the first Governor-General of Pakistan, himself an English lawyer, remained committed to establishing a liberal, democratic State.  A firm believer in human equality and dignity, religious based discrimination had no place in Jinnah’s dictionary.  In his address to the First Constituent Assembly, on 11 August 1947, Jinnah famously stated “…You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State . . . We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State”.  Jinnah practiced what he professed: Jinnah appointed in his first cabinet a Dalit or untouchable Hindu, Jogendra Nath Mandal as Law Minister and Chaudry Zafar-Ullah Khan, an Ahmadi as foreign minister.

Fast-forward this to 2020: Pakistan, regrettably is a State where discrimination and persecution of religious minorities is written in law and is widely practiced. Within the State institutions, at the societal level, and in the media, minorities are targeted and victimised often with complete impunity.  Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis are persecuted and discriminated against heavily: there are not equal citizens, and as the poorest and most vulnerable they are denied opportunities and thus remain largely excluded from higher education and their representation at the higher echelons of government, bureaucracy and judiciary remains negligible: State advertised positions for the most lowly  jobs such as sanitary workers are regularly retained exclusively for non-Muslims; Muslims would not do such menial jobs and Christians and Hindus are treated as filthy, unclean and unacceptable and therefore ostracised from the Muslim colonies and frequently dumped into slums or deprived areas.  

Each year approximately 1000 Christian and Hindu girls (and the numbers can be higher) are abducted, forcibly converted and forcibly married, often to older married men, who use them for sexual gratification and these girls frequently are abandoned or forced into sexual slavery.  Remedial efforts such as the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill 2016 – which criminalised forcibly converting a minor – could not become law, because of opposition from religious lobbies.  Similarly, a Bill the Child Marriage (Restraint) Amendment Bill 2019 – that aimed to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 remains stalled in the National Assembly.

Religious minorities also suffer worst from of violations through the application of the Blasphemy laws and other laws in the criminal justice system.  Aasia Bibi remained in prison for nearly 10 years, charged and convicted to a death sentence for contravening the provisions of S.295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.  Her eventual acquittal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in October 2018, nevertheless highlighted this law’s draconian nature as a strict liability offence and disproportionate punishment dispensing mandatory death sentence.  Blasphemy laws are a tool to abuse religious minorities (and indeed other human rights defenders) for even an accusation of blasphemy could trigger mob violence and brutality against the alleged blasphemer – in its 2018 Judgement, the Supreme Court noted that 62 persons have been murders by angry mobs.  Currently at least 17 people are on death row convicted of blasphemy offences, and many others are serving life sentences for related offences.  More broadly, Pakistan retains and continues to implement the death penalty for offences which under international law are not regarded ‘as most serious crimes’. A country with one of the world largest death row numbers, around 8000 persons including children (including children from religious or ethnic minority backgrounds) and with rampant corruption in the criminal justice machinery, there is an urgency to introduce a moratorium on all executions.

In October 2018, a number of Parliamentarians from the APPG for Pakistani Minorities visited Pakistan and during this brief but intensive and important visit came across many of the issues and challenges faced by minorities.  The details of the parliamentary visit are now available in the APPG’s detailed report:

The report highlights the aforementioned concerns, alongside many others such as the absence of the National Commission for Minorities, the non-implementation of appropriate quotas in employment and education, a political system that systematically excludes minority representation as citizens of Pakistan, physical violence, hate speech or attacks on Minorities places of worship as well as the systematic institutionalisation of discrimination and persecution of religious minorities in their public and private life.

To conclude, the UK has historic, commonwealth ties with Pakistan: it is home to over 1 million Pakistanis, British-Pakistanis representing the second-largest ethnic minority population in the UK.  Furthermore, as the largest donor of bi-lateral foreign aid as a strategic priority, the UK has claimed significant interest in promoting human rights, democracy and rule of law in Pakistan. 

In this context, ignoring serious human rights violations and continued support for some of the worst human rights abusers regrettably provides credence to those critics who point out to double-standards in our foreign policy and diplomatic engagement.

I recommend that the British government should make explicit in all its businesses with Pakistan the importance of Freedom of Religion or Belief and protection of minority rights.  

The government also needs to track and audit its current funding and investment streams in relevant departments, including Department for International Trade and Development (DfID) to ensure that these are not being channelled, directly or indirectly to Pakistani government departments or to individuals who do not support and demonstrate a clear commitment to uphold minority rights.  

Indeed, on certain issues, the violations are so serious – such as the forced conversions, forced marriages and the refusal to establish an independent minorities commission that future UK aid should be linked to appropriate changes both in law and in practice.  

UK government also need to engage in a serious bi-lateral human rights dialogue asking Pakistan to accept international human rights obligations, including ratification of human rights treaties and their full domestic implementation and full and unhindered access to the various UN Special procedure mandate-holders.

Pakistan, a nuclear State, the fifth most populous country in the world with over 220 million inhabitants is at cross-roads: religious intolerance, radicalisation and continued violations of minority rights undoubtedly violates principles of rule of law and constitutionalism but are destabilising global peace and security of which there are ample warnings: from the July 2005 London bombers trainings in Pakistan, to Osama Bin Laden’s Long sojourn and killing in Pakistan in May 2011 to the current Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan calling Osama Bin Laden ‘a martyr’ in Pakistan’s national assembly on 26 June 2020.

Professor Javaid Rehman

6 July 2020.

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