May 17th, 2021 

By Suneel Malik 


LAHORE

Days after the European Parliament (EP) adopted a scathing resolution voicing its concerns on the lack of implementation on Pakistan’s human rights obligations, as well as the abysmal situation of religious freedom in the country, the Government reached its decision regarding the resolution.

The EP maintained that there was a serious lack of concrete measures to prevent the incitement to hostility and violence against religious minorities on the pretext of allegations of blasphemy.

Instead of taking serious consideration of the problems encountered by the religious minorities, the Special Representative to Prime Minister on Religious Harmony demurred the EP resolution that had called upon the EU Commission to reassess Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status. Instead, he invited ambassadors of the EU and the US to visit Pakistan to observe firsthand, the ‘religious freedom’ present in the country. He also went on to claim that minorities in Pakistan fully enjoyed religious freedom, and there was neither a misuse of blasphemy laws, nor were there any forced faith conversions.

Ironically, soon after he made these claims, they came under question, when a recent incident in Punjab Institute of Mental Health (PIMH) took place where Muslim nurses staged a fierce protest demanding the immediate closure of a chapel – an auditorium designated for the hospital’s Christian staff for Sunday prayers. The Muslim nurses instead took over the auditorium and began reciting ‘naats’, and subsequently demanded that it be used for Friday prayers. They forced the Christian nurses to raze their chapel and pressured them to change their religion, threatening them with blasphemy allegations in case they failed to comply with their demands.

This horrific incident reflects the level of intimidation and coercion caused by religious intolerance across the country, which creates risk and fear for the religious minorities limiting their ability to practice their faith with freedom.

The Pew Research Center confirms that Pakistan has the ‘highest levels of both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion, which tend to reinforce one another and contribute to a vicious cycle of discrimination and violence.

This April, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its latest report on religious freedom had recommended 14 countries including Pakistan for redesignation as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for engaging in and tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom, of which the US State Department will make the final decision pursuant to USCIRF recommendations by the end of 2021.

Last December, the US Secretary of State designated 10 countries including Pakistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), whereas four countries including Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia were placed in the category of Special Watch List (SWL). Ten non-state actors including Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban were placed in Entities of Particular Concern (EPC) who engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom which threaten peace, stability, and people’s access to other human rights.

It is worth recalling that despite USCIRF’s repeated recommendation since 2002, the US State Department included Pakistan in the CPC for the first time in 2018, but it remained in the category in 2019 and 2020 as well. Still, Pakistani authorities did not have to face any related sanctions owing to the issuance of a waiver to sanctions by the US administration. It is pertinent to note that the imposition of sanctions for CPC designation may accompany actions that require government officials and agencies involved in religious freedom violations, to face freezing of their assets and bar on their entry into the USA.

It is indubitable that Pakistan has been reaping economic benefits from the GSP+ status for over seven years now on account of which it has enjoyed the wavering of tariff on its exports into the EU bloc. However, the trade concessions may not last long as the European Parliament is not satisfied with Pakistan’s progress on the GSP+ conditions, which is premised on the commitment that the benefitting country would effectively comply with provisions of the 27 international conventions in the field of human rights, labour rights, environment and good governance.

Although, the adoption of the EP’s resolution does not entail an automatic revocation to Pakistan’s GSP+ status, it is still important to assess what may be the cost to losing such a trade concession with EU. In case, the GPS+ status is withdrawn or revoked, Pakistan may lose its largest trading partner, which will badly affect its economy, and make it face diplomatic isolation in the world. Above all, Pakistan will end up being dubbed a human rights violator tarnishing its image in the international community.

The question is why is Pakistan repeatedly asked by various stakeholders to do more to improve religious freedom in the country?

If the government has indeed made efforts towards promoting religious freedom and protecting minority rights as it claims, more must be made visible. Some steps that the government claims to have made include introducing ‘religious education’ for minorities in place of Islamiyat, reserving two per cent admission quota for minority students in higher education institutions in Punjab, opening Gurdwara Darbar Sahib (the Kartarpur Corridor), opening and renovating Hindu temples, etc.

However, more serious efforts are needed to resolve the issues that affect religious freedom and minorities that require the authorities to take effective measures to stop misuse of blasphemy laws, address forced conversions, protect minorities against hate crimes and violence, and reform curricula and textbooks to ensure that they are inclusive and non-discriminatory towards any religious community.

It has been observed that the legislators and advisors lack clarity regarding Pakistan’s human rights commitments and obligations, the public office-holders need not see religious freedom as a matter of religion but as a question of human rights. The denial of the real human rights issues that minorities face by terming them merely ‘propaganda’ or ‘western interests’ will do no good. The government needs to meaningfully engage in dialogue with the EU to address its concerns and demonstrate progressive compliance with its human rights obligations by taking substantial measures to address the outstanding issues.

Apart from engagement with the EU, the deliberations with the relevant local actors is equally crucial, therefore the government needs to invite the opinion of legal experts on gaps in content and implementation of sacrilegious laws, and consult with education experts to deal with problematic content in curricula and textbooks.

After all, it is in Pakistan’s national interest to improve the implementation of human rights, strengthen the rule of law, curb religious extremism, advance religious freedom, and foster social cohesion in the country.

Note: The writer is an advocate of human rights. He tweets @maliksuneel, and can be reached at [email protected]

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