Two American activists for justice at home and abroad visited Pakistan last week. They also spearheaded a campaign for the release of the Pakistani woman, Dr Aafia Siddiqui, who has been sentenced to 86 years by an American court for a crime that was not proven and most likely never committed.

Former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and world reputed peace and justice activist Sara Flounders spoke passionately at the seminar that I attended at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Islamabad. They argued for Dr Aafia’s immediate release and her return to her children and family in Pakistan. The first step should be that Pakistan formally requests for this, the activists said.

The distinguished activists went through a whole series of areas where the American justice system has declined. First, at the political level, with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy, who were by many seen as too liberal, especially since they were working for major changes in race and class relations.

The activists discussed the legal and prison system. They said that America has a very high number of prisoners, almost half of all prisoners in the world. Worse still, most of them come from underprivileged groups, with blacks and other ethnic or religious minorities being extremely over-represented.

In trials related to the so-called war on terror, water boarding and other forms of torture and inhumane treatment is used on the watch of former and current administrations. Suspects have been flown across the world to extract confessions under severe torture in other countries.

In the ongoing wars, or occupations, notably in Afghanistan, America along with Nato has own rules and operates mercilessly towards the so-called enemies among the civilians. Apparently, they will leave behind them a country in worse condition than the time when they occupied it 12 years ago, the activists said.

And they went on explaining that America will keep using drones, especially against Pakistan, until someone manages to find ways of sending them back and attacking the US itself; only then it will realise that drone attacks are unethical, and that they constitute war crimes.

In all wars, there are war crimes and the winners get away with it all, while the losers have to abide by international law and face prosecution and sentencing.

Cynthia and Sara said that they felt sorry for America having gone astray and that the justice system was no longer reliable, neither at home nor abroad.

The chair of the meeting was retired Ambassador Akram Zaki, and Senator Saadia Abbasi was the moderator with IPS Director General Dr Khalid Rahman. In other words, the Pakistani establishment was represented at the seminar.

The audience was a mix of independent intellectuals, retired military and civil servants, lawyers, diplomats and the media. It was a one-sided and, perhaps, tilted seminar. But it was a useful one at many levels.

First, the speakers highlighted Dr Aafia’s case. Second, the broader substantive issues, where much of what was presented were facts, albeit without opposing data and alternative views. Third, the activists, or should we call them dissidents, spoke with confidence and comfort, knowing well that they had the right of free speech.

Well, maybe they are being kept an eye on by some of the CIA officers and informers in Pakistan (and they suggested there are tens of thousands of them in the country, but by nature, nobody knows).

Perhaps, there would be counter-information campaigns to contradict the activists’ opinions, and even smear their activities and persons. Yet, the two activists seemed very much at ease with the right to do what they were doing, despite the fact that they had presented very critical data against their country’s government, key institutions and state apparatus. The women felt not just a right to dissent; they felt a duty to speak and write about it. That was the main lesson I drew from the activists’ speeches.

The right to disagree and to speak sense to power is important in a democracy. We must always debate issues. When issues are controversial and very important, we must give a lot of time to public debate, to include the civil society and interest organisations, political parties, researchers and others. We must all try to study and learn about the issues at hand, such as the US and Nato war operations and the abnormalities of the American justice system.

We must not only debate and argue for outcomes that are in own self-interest, or in accordance with majority opinions. We must be principled and advocate for the common good and in the interest of oppressed groups and individuals. Such issues are, for example, local and global environmental issues, gender issues, education and health issues, including the running of the local school in our community and so on.

We not only have a right to speak about issues we find important; we have a duty to do so. We also have a right and duty to speak our mind, even if it is against authorities and establishment, and experts and civil servants.

A democracy that does not encourage and welcome dissidence is not a real democracy. This also applies to a national parliament and elected bodies at lower levels in a country. The elected majority should rule, but it also needs to take the interests of minority groups into consideration.

And then in parliament, the opposition will be constituted of one or more minority groups. They are charged with keeping an eye on the majority group in power. Perhaps, after the next election, the roles may be reversed.

It is not disloyalty when the opposition and other groups criticise the government. It is not disloyalty when environmentalists and women working for gender equality campaign for greater understanding of global warming.

It is not disloyalty when people of all colours and creeds work for equality. It is not disloyalty when feudal and capitalist systems are criticised for not caring enough about the poor and marginalised groups. It is our duty to do so!

If we look the other way and pretend that things are not really bad, as we often do, then we are accomplices to injustice. The least we should do is to try to understand situations that are unfair and speak for change.

It is in the light of such tall orders and ideals that we must understand the work of these two American activists. Cynthia and Sara represent the best in human dignity and concern. Yes, they may use hard hitting arguments and sometimes exaggerate. They are not neutral academics. They do what they do to achieve results that can improve specific situations in their home country, the USA, and all those countries that the superpower affects with war, trade and in other ways.

Cynthia and Sara do what they do out of love for the people affected and out of love for their home country, too, which has gone astray in many fields. They want the great land to become great again for its own people and for the world.

Having listened to the American dissenters and activists, I was reminded of my own duty to speak up against injustice, war and brutality, poverty and decadence. It is the duty of every country and every citizen to do so.

May we all take inspiration from the American women and do what we have to do for the communities we live in. May we all try to do what is right to improve life and conditions of the last, the least and the lowest. The others can fend for themselves.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.   Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com