The comprehensive scheme of civil, political, economic and social rights that underlie the aspirations of the modern human rights movement is often, and justifiably so, received with skepticism in many parts of the world, including Pakistan. In a world where ideological clashes are increasingly defining and orchestrating international relations, if there is one thing we have learnt, it is that ideas are only as dangerous as humans make them. The fear of the unfamiliar foreign operates in such a way that critics of the human rights movement in Pakistan are hasty to discard the whole business of human rights as a discourse belonging to the developed West.
There is of course veracity in the claim that the modern conception of human rights does indeed owe its language and form to the European civilization. However, that in itself is inadequate reason to conclude that there is absolutely nothing worth extrapolating from what is arguably at the center of all global movements in present times. Here in Pakistan, people have unfortunately come to be conditioned in a way that grand conspiracy theories seem to offer our agitated minds the best dose of solace. Reasoning and introspection come second, as it is almost invariably our lazy inkling for blame games that win in the end. Only if we were to dig a little deeper beyond the superficial, we are surely in for many surprises on our way. Surprises such as the idea that human rights are not indeed an exclusive monopoly of the West. That there is precedent in other cultures that resonates the ideational underpinnings of human rights even before it evolved into a modern phenomenon as documented in formal multilateral treaties and declarations.
The state of justice in Pakistan continues to be plagued by an inherent contradiction within the system. On the one hand the Foreign Ministry becomes signatory to a multitude of international legal instruments such as the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture, au contraire the domestic courts of law are unwilling or unable to enforce any of the rights contained therein in individual cases. In this paradoxical situation where two arms of the same State are working on entirely different tangents, the interests of the ordinary citizen are routinely trampled as he realises that none of the lofty-sounding declarations really matter. Insofar as law can be seen as the measure of the moral progress of a particular society, is it possible that Pakistani society itself has created the inertia against the human rights movement? Many are keen to point out the ulterior Western motives without realising that the defining ideology of Pakistan – Islam – itself champions the same cause. In that sense, the criticism against the human rights movement, if judged on its merits, represents not only a case of misplaced intellectual energies, it arrogantly overlooks the references within the sources of Shariah that are evidence of Islamic support for human rights
This skeptic attitudes towards human rights is not only a step back for intellect, it perpetuates the practice of thinking in terms of binaries – something that will only get us further than ever from the true message of Islam. Who is to say that the right to security of life is any less sacred in our religion than Western legal philosophy? Commenting upon the structural flaws in policing and legal loopholes, Barrister Sarah Belal, working towards reinstating the moratorium on death penalty through her human rights law firm – Justice Project Pakistan, revisits teachings within the Quran which according to her ‘could not have set a higher standard of respect for human life’ than it has when it equates the unjust death of one innocent to killing all humanity. Have we also forgotten that the right to freedom from all forms of forced labour and exploitation was, as a matter of historical fact, introduced by Islam over a millennium before the rights of African slaves were recognized by the United States Congress in 1865. The rights of all men and women to be educated is by no means a realisation of the Western conscience alone, as Islam emphatically states the importance of acquiring knowledge, regardless of gender, as a matter of duty.
The economic right of human beings to the basic physical necessities of life, might have been codified in International covenants under the auspices of the UN, but they have for centuries been a part of Islamic injunctions that make it obligatory upon the wealthy to share their wealth with those in need. The right to seek justice through fair trial and due process appeared in the Quran (And if you judge between mankind, judge justly) years before it found its way into the Magna Carta – the foundation of the modern legal system. During a recent visit to Islamabad, Micheal O’Connel, one of the world’s leading advocates of the human rights of victims of crime and terrorism, observes that fundamental human rights are the pillars of all civil societies and all the main religions of the world, ‘especially those that share links with Abraham’ – the common ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is interesting to note that the commonalities drawn here signify only one thing i.e. the idea that the quintessential message of human rights movement is not by any score the heritage of one nation or religious community.
Going a step further, if one tries to ascertain where International Humanitarian Law (IHL) originated from, it becomes clear that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was the first international lawyer to speak of the protection of civilians and civilian property. Imaan Hazir Mazari, from the Research Society of International Law, reiterates that it must be understood that Islam recognized IHL long before the formulation of the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols.
However, to endorse the modern discourse on human rights, is by no means the same as endorsing the Western foreign policy that has all too often used humanitarian goals as a pretext for its shady adventures. In much the same way that it is irrational to judge a 1.6 billion strong community based on the actions of a tiny fraction of its members, it is naive to overlook all the good to be extracted from the human rights discourse because it has been misapplied by a few individual policy-makers and governments in the West. The need of the hour is to bring human rights closer to home by owning up to the Islamic norms and principles that echo the sentiments underlying international legal instruments. As Muslims don’t we owe it to ourselves to know ourselves better. It is not enough that Pakistani diplomats scribble their signatures on scrolls, paying lip service to lofty goals without investing in immediate mechanisms for the legal enforcement, and long term strategies to promote a culture and philosophy, of human rights in Pakistani society.