Lord Alton has sent us a copy of his most recent question for a short debate in the House of Lords:
Pakistan: Religious Violence
Read full debate at:
Question for Short Debate
2 pm May 22nd 2013
My Lords, the combination of inadequate religious freedom protections and an entrenched climate of impunity has strengthened the position of the more violent groups in Pakistani society, described by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which have long been allowed to promote their own interpretation of Islam, narrowing the space for difference. What begins as an anti-minority sentiment can later divide the majority.
The noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Desai, rightly referenced the alarming growth of anti-Shia violence in Pakistan. In 2012, at least 325 members of the Shia Muslim population were killed in targeted attacks. In this context, counterextremism discussions with Pakistan are clearly incomplete without measures intended to bolster the protection and promotion of religious freedom or belief. Pursuant to the Written Answer that the Minister gave me on 17 May, I would be keen to know when we will raise these questions with the new Government.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and anti-Ahmadi provisions remain key concerns. The blasphemy laws lack any definition of terms and ignore the question of intent. False accusations can be easily registered, as evidential requirements are inadequate. Dozens were charged in 2012 and at least 16 people remain on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 have been given life sentences. In 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian from Punjab province, became the first woman in Pakistan’s history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and continues to languish in prison. Can the Minister tell us when we last raised her case with the authorities in Pakistan? The resolution of last year’s case against the Christian teenager Rimsha Masih was cited by Pakistan as an illustration that the situation is improving, but the subsequent blasphemy-related attacks on hundreds of Christian homes in Badami Bagh in Lahore in March this year suggests otherwise.
Access to justice is problematic for all vulnerable communities in Pakistan, including minorities. Perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, which means that minorities are often viewed as easy targets. Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Shias, Sufis and Sikhs have all been badly affected, with Shia communities suffering by far the most casualties. Hate speech and the propagation of inflammatory messages is a standard precursor to religiously motivated violence, but it is rarely punished in Pakistan, despite the fact that relevant legislation already exists. Even government officials inciting violence have not been held accountable for their actions.
The police and members of the judiciary need to be made far more aware of human rights and the unacceptability of impunity. In the aftermath of the Badami Bagh violence, many commented that it would not have taken place if the perpetrators of previous mob incidents—Gojra in 2009, Sangla Hill in 2005, Shanti Nagar in 1997—had been adequately dealt with. Official investigation reports exist for at least the high-profile cases. Will the Minister be pressing the incoming Government to make these public, or indeed to shed light on the murder of the federal Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, whose killers have never been identified? If the case of an assassinated Cabinet Minister remains unsolved, how can ordinary citizens have faith in the justice system and why should potential attackers fear the law?
Knowing that he was likely to be assassinated, Shahbaz Bhatti once said that he hoped his stand would send,
“a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair”,
adding that his life was dedicated to the “oppressed, downtrodden and marginalised” and to,
“struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities’ communities”.
Will we be pressing for an end to impunity and the repeal of the anti-Ahmadi provisions in the constitution, which legitimise violence and social prejudice? What will we be saying about gender-based violence, the abduction, forced marriage and forcible conversion of Christian and Hindu women and girls, which has increased in frequency in the past couple of years, with perpetrators emboldened by the relatively low likelihood of conviction? We have heard about the increase in aid provision this year from £267 million to £446 million, with Pakistan about to become the largest recipient of UK aid. What are we going to do in using that aid to press for the removal of hate-driven material from schools and emphasising the importance of forming teachers who nurture respect and tolerance? Donors such as the UK need to be sure that they are not inadvertently funding materials that bolster messages of religious intolerance and violence in Pakistan.
In 1947, at the time of partition, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, gave a speech to the New Delhi Press Club, setting out the basis on which the new state of Pakistan was to be founded. In it, he forcefully defended the rights of minorities to be protected and to have their beliefs respected. He said:
“Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed”.
Pakistan’s new Government owe it to his memory, and to the memory of men such as Shahbaz Bhatti, and to girls such as Malala Yousufzai, the 15 year-old who was shot by the Taliban for pressing for the right of women to an education, and to the millions who bravely defied the Taliban to vote in recent elections in Pakistan, to make those sentiments a reality.
(Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool)
House of Lords,