INASIA

Insights and Analysis

Signs of Hope for Pakistan’s Religious Minorities

December 9, 2015

By Nadia Tariq-Ali

The last few years have seen some of the most brutal attacks against Pakistan’s religious minority communities, estimated to make up approximately 3-5 percent of the total population of over 190 million. These attacks – including the March attack on two churches in a Christian community in Lahore that left 17 dead and 80 injured – have increased criticism over Pakistan’s ability to protect its non-Muslim citizens.

December 10 marks International Human Rights Day – a time for commemorating the fundamental freedoms that underpin the International Bill of Rights. Amid these recent tragedies, it is indeed difficult to see glimmers of hope for Pakistan’s religious minorities. However, over the past few months, the government has shown clear signs of a shift toward discouraging anti-pluralistic forces in the country. While the efficacy of these initiatives has been debated, they are clearly influencing the existing narrative regarding the state’s commitment toward its non-Muslim citizens. It is therefore important to put these initiatives into perspective to fully understand their significance for marginalized groups, especially religious minorities, in Pakistan. Here are some highlights:

Pakistan’s first National Commission for Human Rights was authorized to operate in May this year. An independent NCHR was the country’s longstanding obligation and international commitment since the adoption of Paris Principles in 1993. After a wait of more than two decades, however, the government finally set up an independent commission, granting it the power to conduct inquiries and take actions on its own accord (suo moto). The Commission has also designated a minority member which is unprecedented in any other commission in the country.

Last month, the government declared the Ministry of Human Rights an independent Ministry, separate from the Ministry of Law & Justice with which it had previously been merged. The move has been welcomed by the civil society since the two portfolios were said to be in “direct conflict with each other.” According to officials, while the decision was taken in late October after the country failed to win reelection to the United Nations Human Rights Council, it is a clear indication of the government’s seriousness toward the protection of human rights in Pakistan.

The government announced a 20-point National Action Plan in the aftermath of the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014. The plan seeks to eradicate of all forms of terrorism, bring an end to violent acts against the minorities, and eliminate extremist elements and forces in the country.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan gave two landmark judgments recently, including a verdict on June 19, 2014, in which the court instructed the government to take concrete measures in order to improve the status of minorities in the country and make a National Commission for Minorities as well as a special task force for their protection. While the government initially ignored the order, it was forced to act after the court took yet another suo moto action in the aftermath of the Kot Radha Kishan incident in which a Christian couple was lynched to death by an angry mob before their bodies were hurled into a brick kiln to burn.

Starting last year, the Pakistan Religious Freedom Initiative (PRFI) proposed significant amendments to the country’s legal system to safeguard the interests of minorities. The PRFI has set up Religious Freedom Caucuses at the National Assembly and the provinces of Sindh and Punjab. These RFCs have been specifically designed to promote inter-faith harmony and highlight the issues afflicting the minorities at the policy level. The PRFI has been focusing on separate family laws for different religious communities, and increasing the number of minority seats in the country’s national and provincial assemblies and legislations to prevent forced conversions and hate crimes in Pakistan. A number of resolutions have also been submitted in the assemblies and a detailed Road Map for Legislative Change and a Charter of Demand for Policy Advocacy have been finalized, shared, and endorsed by RFC members and the Technical Working Groups.

In addition, the PRFI has worked extensively with the Ministry of Human Rights to improve the capacities of law enforcement agencies, and to strengthen the referral mechanisms between government departments. It has also supported the newly established NCHR in developing its strategic plan, bylaws, and referral and complaint registration systems. All this has provided PRFI the opportunity to strengthen existing state machinery to help minority religious communities in Pakistan.

These initiatives are gradually opening a space for civil society organizations to fight for the rights of minority religious communities. The challenge now is to capitalize on this momentum that has been generated by state institutions in recent years. There are no quick fixes here. But it is imperative for donors and civil society organizations to work together in this immensely important area.

Nadia Tariq-Ali is The Asia Foundation’s team manager for the Pakistan Religious Freedom Initiative. She can be reached at nadia.ali@asiafoundation.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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