May 312008

Convenient smokescreens of poverty and superficial anti-Western rhetoric all represent convenient ruses used by leaders in their effort to fool a population into believing that respect for human dignity is somehow against Pakistan or Islam

This past week Amnesty International issued its yearly report on the state of the world’s human rights. With its introductory section bearing the dismal title of “Broken Promises”, the report takes stock of the progress made by the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sixty years after its initial passage in 1948.

The reports’ candid appraisal of the failure of world leaders to take the cause of human rights seriously makes for depressing reading. Even more notable is the report’s recognition of the post 9/11 context in which human rights have been labelled a “western construct” in order fuel suspicion and fear among governments and citizens.

Nowhere is this debate more pertinent than in the case of Pakistan. With the arrival of the “war on terror” on Pakistan’s own doorstep, the cause of human rights has suffered much in the country and not only at the hand of militants engaged routinely in beheadings and suicide bombings. Even “enlightened moderates” in Pakistan have disavowed the need to ascribe to, for example, the right of all humans to life, liberty and the security of person and have disavowed the UDHR as a “western” construct.

In an interview given in February of this year to Human Rights Watch, President Pervez Musharraf accused his questioner of “imposing a Western human rights standard on the country” and suggested that Pakistan would be thrown into turmoil if it were to apply these standards.

It is not surprising that President Musharraf does not consider upholding human rights a worthy cause. In its first few pages, the AI report is unequivocal in chiding the US government for its support of President Musharraf.

It says: “the hollowness of the US administration’s call for democracy and freedom abroad was displayed in its continued support of President Musharraf as he arrested thousands of lawyers, journalists, and political activists for demanding democracy, the rule of law and an independent judiciary in Pakistan” The report chides the United States for calling President Musharraf an “indispensably ally” on the war on terror all while the growing insecurity in Pakistan’s cities and border regions indicates that “far from arresting extremist violence President Musharraf’s repressive policies, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, have fed grievances helped spur anti-western sentiments and laid the seeds for greater instability in the sub-region. The Pakistani people have shown their strong repudiation for President Musharraf even as the US continues to embrace him.”

In light of President Musharraf’s comments, Pakistanis must take time to consider the crucial question of whether Pakistan is indeed too poor, too different, and too exceptional to ascribe to the principles of equality, human dignity and denunciation of torture and ill treatment enshrined in the Declaration. While it is undoubted that the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was arrived at under the leadership of Western nations, does this fact of its genesis make the rights of freedom and liberty irrelevant to Pakistan?

The answer to this question is a complex one. While it is true that Western definitions of universality have often given short shrift to the nuances and peculiarities of non-Western contexts, it is also true that the rights contained within the Universal Declaration are so bare and so basic that their disavowal is most glaringly the repudiation of compassion and human dignity rather than a political renunciation of Western hegemony. In other words, the fact that both the Taliban and former army generals consider human rights irrelevant to the Pakistani context should be instructive for Pakistanis. Hiding behind the convenient smokescreen of fighting Western hegemony, what these leaders are saying through their vocal and actual renunciation of the UDHR is quite simply that in the larger game of gaining power, the lives of individual humans are simply too unimportant and too unworthy of consideration.

While President Musharraf may have seen no problems in accepting vast amounts of Western aid, or meeting with various Western leaders or supporting various Western governments, when it comes to the question of upholding Western concepts of human rights, the cost suddenly becomes to burdensome for Pakistan to bear.

Similarly, the Tehreek-e Taliban for all their denunciation of Western principles is unlikely to turn down Western ammunition, Western anti-aircraft missiles and other forms of Western weaponry as they carry out their reign of terror.

Similarly, alleging that Pakistanis are too poor to afford upholding human rights is saying that the poor of the world are cursed not by material want but are also immoral and incapable of human compassion. While poverty may invoke many material hardships, to insist that it makes a nation incapable of upholding principles of equality and human dignity is an affront to the world’s poor who prove their open hearted generosity in millions of undocumented acts of compassion everyday.

In effect, the convenient smokescreens of poverty and superficial anti-Western rhetoric all represent convenient ruses used by leaders as disparate as Tehreek-e Taliban renegades to Western-educated army generals in their effort to fool a population into believing that respect for human dignity is somehow against Pakistan or Islam.

As the AI report details, hundred of people continue to be missing in Pakistan due to extra judicial detentions, at the same time the reign of terror unleashed by the Taliban in the north has already cost nearly a thousand lives. The tragedy of such carnage is made even more pitiable if it does not lead Pakistanis to state unequivocally to their leaders that respect for human life and dignity, for equality and legal accountability is not reserved for the West or the affluent.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Courtesy: Daily Times, 31/5/2008

 Posted by at 10:03 am

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