There is a lot riding on Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari’s shoulders. The state of human rights in Pakistan is not even close to where it needs to be, the Ministry she is in charge of had more or less slipped into complete anonymity since its creation in the 90’s by Benazir Bhutto and rights abuses are an almost daily occurrence in Pakistan. As one of the senior members of her party, her performance, alongside other notable names such as Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Asad Umer, will establish whether Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) can really usher in the change it promises. Political heavyweights and the duties they perform under the portfolios assigned will set the tone for newer members of the party as well.
Although it is still too early to judge, the minister’s first act as head of of Ministry of Human Rights has not been encouraging. As minister of a portfolio that has long been ignored, her responsibility increased tenfold because of the sheer number of issues plaguing the human rights sector in Pakistan. With the news of an Ahmaddiya mosque being set ablaze on Eid, Ms Mazari had the perfect opportunity to set the tone for the next five years. What we saw instead from the Information Minister (and belatedly backed by Ms Mazari) was a denial of any religious undertones to the affair, instead stating that the issue was one of disagreement.
What the new government failed to address however, was the fact that a simple disagreement was used to fan the flames of religious hatred and burn a place of worship to the ground. Sadly, her reaction to this issue will be forgotten soon enough; successive governments and state sponsored oppression at the hands of the majority have more or less completely eradicated the Ahmadiyya narrative from the public sphere. However, her letter to international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) as a response to their appeal is what will stand out, albeit in a negative way.
Human Rights Watch, an international body that needs no introduction, sent a letter to the new government in an attempt to remind it of its lofty responsibilities in the next five years, pointing out issues that need to be resolved in the sphere of rights provisions to the citizens of Pakistan. Ms Mazari responded as if she was personally attacked, asking HRW to look at other issues plaguing the world, such as the rights abuses in Kashmir. The ‘sharp rebuke’ can be looked at from the jingoistic lens: our Minister put an international organisation “in its place” after all, even if the response was completely unwarranted and childish. Or, we can be rational and bemoan the missed opportunity that yet another government leader has squandered. HRW does not have any partisan affiliations and is committed to protecting rights.
This is not to say that the organisation is perfect, but to claim that they ignore the rights abuses in Kashmir is also false; the HRW website has an entire section on Kashmir, regularly posting opinions, news articles and reminding India to not ignore the UN report on the issue. As a non-governmental organisation, HRW cannot do much more. Why does the state have to get into a verbal disagreement with an international civil society organisation over a non-issue? The Minister’s time could be better spent reviewing the rights situation in our country. Instead of treating human rights organisations as allies, Ms Mazari has set the tone for her Ministry; deep distrust and little to no cooperation.
And as far as selective oversight is concerned, no one is more guilty of that than Pakistan. While we rage against the rights abuses in Kashmir and insulting cartoon competitions, we ignore minorities being marginalised on a daily basis at the hands of the majority. Each and every Pakistani should be fully cognisant of the rights abuses that are taking place in Kashmir, but using it as a soundbite to get cheers from a populist support base does not do justice to anyone. The state ends up looking like a fool; accusing other people of doing something we do as well will not be seen by anyone as a smart reply. This is not a contest between two teenagers on who can deliver the best insult; these are state affairs and need to be handled with maturity. The Kashmir issue is not a political slogan but a legitimate struggle for self-determination and politicians should stop using it to score points. Propping up Kashmir as a means to detract from our own failings only implies that we are not ready to face the problems we are beset by. This is not the way to handle things for a minister that took on a role by request and is touted as one of the best PTI has to offer.
Issues such as the marginalisation of the Ahmadiyya community, the case of enforced disappearances at the hands of security forces and other cases of rights abuses have been gaining traction in the media for the last few days and Ms Mazari was spoilt for choice on choosing at least one of these and making sure that justice is served. Instead we have business as usual; initiatives promised in areas such as restructuring the employment policy of Dar-ul-Aman – nothing too inflammatory, nothing controversial. If we have a dedicated Minister for Human Rights, we expect more than reform; a Minister that is not scared to challenge the status quo and take on the most difficult of issues – regardless of the opposition – is what we really need.
The early signs are not positive but there is still time enough for Ms Mazari to show us that – unlike her predecessors – she deserves this portfolio and is genuinely interested in addressing rights issues. Any steps she takes to protect religious minorities or make Pakistan a more inclusive country will be remembered forever. The bar has to be set high for someone of Ms Mazari’s calibre. Anything less is just not acceptable.
The writer is a former member of staff.