To Ensure Stability in South Asia, Protection of Religious Minorities a Must
February 3, 2016
At the South Asian Forum for Minorities (SAFM) last week, prominent parliamentarians, government functionaries, civil society activists, and journalists put forward a first-ever call to action to the leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to ensure internationally recognized protection of minority rights in the region.
Organized by The Asia Foundation’s Pakistan Religious Freedom Initiative and supported by Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, the two-day forum addressed the challenges facing minority religious communities in South Asia to find ways to protect them against systematic discrimination and social injustices in their respective countries. Participants examined issues such as the challenges of integrating religious minorities, their depiction in the mainstream media, the decline of equal opportunities for them, and how to get these groups equitable political representation.
“About 77 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religion,” said Philip Calvert, Canadian ambassador to Thailand, reminding participants that the question of religious freedom is not just confined to South Asia, but is increasingly turning into a pressing global issue. “Discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities causes suffering, spreads divisions, and contributes to a climate of fear. Countries become more peaceful, secure, and stable when minority rights are genuinely preserved.”
Participants agreed that South Asia should take up a regional approach to safeguard the interests of religious minorities. “In our region,” said Harsh Mander of India’s Center for Equity Studies, “the community which is a minority in one country becomes the persecuting majority in another. It is therefore important that we speak about minority rights on a regional level.”
Peter Jacob, executive director of Center for Social Justice, said that Pakistan’s constitution contains a number of safeguards, making it possible for many to argue that minority rights were well protected in that country. However, one needs only to glimpse into the daily lives of minorities to realize that, despite these safeguards, members of these communities face discrimination on social, political, and judicial levels.
Joe William of the National Peace Council for Sri Lanka discussed the role that social media plays in giving minority communities a voice, but warned civil society groups in the region that they must protect social media networks from unwarranted regulations. He added that websites focused on minority issues made it possible for marginalized communities to voice their grievances when they were largely unheard in the mainstream media.
His contention was also supported by Marvi Sirmad, a well-known Pakistani journalist and human rights activist, who also pointed out that a large number of correspondents usually failed to distance themselves from their own biases while reporting a story that could have a direct impact on the lives of religious minorities in their respective countries.
Analyzing the status of marginalized religious groups from another dimension, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, argued that most regional countries had inherited their legal structures from the colonial system that frequently relied on extensive use of force. The same was replicated by these states even after their independence, which greatly undermined the interests of various ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.
Najam U Din of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that democratic states should facilitate interaction between their religious minorities with other countries’ majority. He added that there was a scope for South Asian countries to get together and lay down a charter of minority rights, dealing only with religious minorities and outlining minimum conditions for them.
Ali Imran of Westminster Foundation in Pakistan agreed that “SAARC social charter 2004 does not cover minorities specifically,” he said. “We need to have a Declaration at SAARC level that focuses exclusively on minorities.”
The call to action, endorsed by the group on January 21, will be shared at the upcoming SAARC Leaders Summit agenda in Pakistan. Among other things, the call to action requests that SAARC leaders take the following steps:
- Implement an internationally recognized minority rights framework as enshrined in Universal Declaration on Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities and Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.
- Promulgate a SAARC Minority Rights Charter to protect fundamental religious freedoms and liberties in South Asia.
- Establish a South Asia Minority Rights Mechanism, including a regional court on human rights, parliamentary, and people’s forum and ensure the participation of citizens and and vibrant civil society of South Asia in the process.
- A SAARC Minority Rights Commission to ensure the coordination and cooperation between state agencies who are responsible for protection and promotion of minority rights.
- Ensure that legal, socio-economic, and political frameworks correspond to mainstreaming and advancement of minority communities and to remove all discriminatory and retrogressive obstacles to ensure promotion and protection of their rights.
- Ensure that minority rights are a part of the SAARC Leader Summit agenda in Pakistan.
Nadia Tariq-Ali is The Asia Foundation’s team manager for the Pakistan Religious Freedom Initiative. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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