Interview with Hina Jilani, First UN Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders

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Written by Akshan de Alwis, UN Correspondent

Hina Jilani served as the first UN Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders to the UN Secretary General (2000-2008).  In 2006, she was appointed to the UN International Fact-Finding Commission on Darfur, Sudan.  In 2009, she served on the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. In 2013, she joined The Elders, a group of world leaders and human rights leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela. A preeminent lawyer, Hina Jilani co-founded the first all women law firm in Pakistan and the National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Hina Jilani has been in the forefront of human rights in Pakistan beginning from Zia Ul-Haq’s dictatorship in the 1970s.

 

You served as the first mandate holder of the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders from 2000 to 2008 and shaped that seminal mandate. Please tell us some of the key aspects of that mandate?

HJ: Respect for human rights necessarily includes recognition of the legitimacy of the work of defenders. As a response to the deteriorating situation of human rights defenders, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on human rights defenders in 1998. On the one hand this was recognition of the dangers that human rights defenders confront and, on the other, a step taken by the international community to create norms for the protection of human rights activity. The Declaration makes it the primary responsibility of the State not only to guarantee the safety of human rights defenders, but also to ensure that conditions exist in which they can carry out their activities.  The mandate to oversee the implementation of the Declaration was established by the UN Secretary General in 2000. The mandate required the SRSG seek, receive examine and respond to information on the situation of human rights defenders and to establish cooperation and conduct dialogue with Governments and other interested actors on the promotion and effective implementation of the Declaration as well as on improving the protection of human rights defenders.

In a world where there is rising violent extremism and heightened crackdown on human rights defenders, please share some key challengers of human rights defenders around the world?

HJ: Establishing promoting and sustaining democracy, maintaining international peace and security and providing or advancing a people oriented agenda for development cannot be accomplished without the contributions that human rights defenders make. Defenders bring to the fore information on the realities of situations to be addressed without which national and international efforts would be ineffective.

They contribute to poverty alleviation, humanitarian assistance, post-conflict reconstruction, and to improving individual indicators of development such as access to health care and adult literacy, among many other activities.

In situations of crises, defenders can monitor an overall situation, rapidly investigate allegations of possible violations and report their conclusions, providing a measure of accountability. They also provide the international community with some independent verification of what is actually happening within an emergency situation, informing the process of taking decisions on possible actions.

This was not easily done. Human rights defenders have suffered harm and face grievous threats to their life, liberty, security, independence and credibility. State apparatus, oppressive laws and other tools of repression continue to be used against defenders in attempts to deter them from the valuable work they contribute to the promotion of human rights.

Human rights defenders all over the world continue to be subjected to assassinations, disappearances, illegal arrest and detention, torture, harassment and even exile.

Starting in the 1970’s in Pakistan you played a relentless and tireless role in the resistance movement against military rule and against the Islamization of laws which violated rights of women and minorities. Can you share some snapshots of that time and how you built national institutions like the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan?

HJ: This was one of the darkest periods in Pakistan’s history. A military coup had brought an end to the first steps that Pakistan had started taking towards democratic governance and constitutionalism. The military regime headed by General Zia-ul-Haq used Islam to legitimize the illegal overthrow of a democratically elected government and imposed unfair and repressive laws that affected the status of women in particular. It was for the first time that women rose to protect their rights and offered strong resistance to the military dictatorship. Several of us were imprisoned; women’s public protests were brutally repressed and gatherings to protect women’s rights were banned. It was in this environment that the platform for women’s voice, Women’s Action Forum, was created.

However, repression of freedoms was not limited to the rights of women and democracy rights activists were undergoing the same restraints. The constitution was abrogated and with it all the guarantees for upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms stood extinct. There was a need for forging alliances and organizing action. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the first human rights NGO in Pakistan was founded at this time.

Can you speak of Blasphemy laws that target minority Muslim populations in Pakistan?  How did you face death threats and attacks on your family because of your struggles against Blasphemy laws and other human rights atrocities in an environment of impunity?

What are called “blasphemy laws” in Pakistan are provisions introduced in the Pakistan Penal Code by Zia’s regime, ostensibly to enforce respect for Islamic personalities and the Holy Quran. In reality this was a ploy to instill fear in the population. One particular provision disregards fundamental principles of criminal justice and makes mens rea irrelevant to a finding of guilt. It also prescribes a mandatory death sentence upon conviction. The law is not only flawed in legal aspects it has been used for malicious prosecution and has targeted religious minorities – not just non-Muslims, but also different minority sects of Muslims in Pakistan. Special laws were promulgated to restrict the freedom of religion of the Ahmediya community in Pakistan, that still remains a persecuted and threatened community in Pakistan.

Any one raising their voice against this law is exposed to extreme violence at the hands of organized religious terrorists, who operate with impunity in Pakistan. The State has been both unwilling and unable to perform its duty to protect in cases where people are either threatened or have actually been harmed by these groups. Lawyers defending those who are accused of blasphemy, judges who have acquitted the accused persons and public figures who have pointed out the flaws in the law or the political and malicious use of the law have been killed. There is an apparent policy of silencing criticism through fear. There are, therefore, only a few voices that continue to be raised and these are people who remain extremely vulnerable to harm.

You are part of the Elders, a group comprised of some of the most preeminent leaders and human rights defenders of the world. This group is a powerful and unified voice to speak up against all types human rights violations, and speak truth to power. Can you speak of some of the major issues that concern the Elders at his time?

HJ: The Elders are an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights. They represent an independent voice, not bound by the interests of any nation, government or institution. We are committed to promoting the shared interests of humanity, and believe in all human rights for all. Contemporary threats to security go far beyond wars between states. Today peace can no longer be associated only with the absence of war. Communities are besieged by violence in the name of religion, ethnicity and rejection of diverse identities. Internal armed conflict, terrorist campaigns, insurgencies, food crises, long-term political or economic instability and natural disasters have placed human security of vast populations at risk. The Elders, therefore, engage with all relevant actors to promote peace and progress that can ensure the enjoyment of civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural lives for every one. The major areas of concern for the Elders are the current refugee crisis that has resulted from raging conflicts in the Middle East and also other parts of the world and the imminent threat of crisis emerging from climate change. The Elders are also promoting initiatives for Universal Health Care and social protections for and advancement of women and girls. The Elders are also engaging in efforts to promote democracy and have supported the transition of countries like Myanmar from military rule to democracy.

What is your advice to the new Secretary General of the United Nations?

HJ: The work of the United Nations for promoting peace and improving security of people living in different parts of the world can not be completed without due attention to the respect for human rights, the UN must ensure better coordination of its political and human rights policies and strategies. I would also strongly recommend that the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council seriously consider making reference to the protection of human rights defenders and to the importance and legitimacy of their work in all their resolutions relating to the maintenance of peace and security. None such resolution so far mentions this very critical aspect of the protection and promotion of human rights.

As Indian troops launch strikes on Pakistan-based terrorists in the contested territory of Kashmir, how can the human rights community step in to prevent the major escalation of a deepening crisis between the nuclear-armed rivals?

South Asians are very perturbed by the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan and fear that the posturing on both sides could lead to dire consequences for people in these two countries. Civil society in India and Pakistan have strongly criticized Pakistan’s failure to act with transparency with regard to its counter-terrorism efforts and at the same time have expressed serious concern about the Government of India’s policies of repression against the Kashmiris living under its control. Pakistan and India must resume dialogue before the situation deteriorates to an extent that peace and security of the whole region is threatened.

 

Photo by The Elders.