By Huma Yusuf
November 20, 2017
THE State Department recently missed its legal deadline for designating ‘Countries of Particular Concern’, a list of nations that violate religious freedom in a “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” manner.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the body that recommends which countries should be designated, criticised the State Department for the oversight, stating that it “tells violators of religious freedom around the world that the United States is looking away”, and is unlikely to take rights violations seriously.
Pakistan is among the 16 countries that the USCIRF has recommended feature on the list — not surprisingly, and not for the first time. However, the State Department has yet to designate Pakistan as a CPC, presumably to avoid tackling the sensitive issue of religious freedoms as part of an already fractious bilateral relationship.
Anyway, it is unlikely that a designation would motivate Pakistan to check the blatant violation of religious minorities’ rights. Souring relations with the US, the astute recognition that religious freedom violations are not a high priority issue for the Trump administration, and a growing reliance on China for support at international fora mean that the designation — in the unlikely event that it were to occur — would be ineffective.
So what would motivate Pakistan to tackle the escalating persecution of religious minorities? This question is particularly pertinent as the hostility against religious minorities intensifies with state complicity, whether in the form of legislation, parliamentary discourse or unchecked street agitation.
External pressure in the form of the CPC designation or other condemnation from powers that can offer inducements (defence cooperation, trade deals, aid) has been the most effective in making states behave themselves: think of Turkey keeping human rights violations in check and respecting press freedom while still aspiring for an EU membership. But in a multipolar world in which some of the ‘poles’ — China, Russia — have little regard for human rights, external pressure is less compelling.
The fact that countries where rights violations are routine are signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar rights treaties is also meaningless. Institutions such as the UN that uphold such treaties are weakening, and their credibility has eroded in the face of multiplying humanitarian crises in places such as Syria and Yemen.
The argument that religious freedom promotes peace by reducing the likelihood of faith-driven or sectarian conflict also falls short in Pakistan’s case. Our country is wracked by lawlessness, and religion-related violence is just one of many security challenges. A decade of indiscriminate terrorism has also made sectarian violence comparatively palatable.
Moreover, our state’s blunt way of dealing with conflict in the form of para/military operations hardly distinguishes between religiously motivated violence and other forms of conflict.
In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argued that economic and social development is facilitated by freedom, and that any form of ‘unfreedom’ hampers progress and prosperity. By this argument, states should promote religious freedom to facilitate an overall environment in which freedom is respected and protected — in other words, rights beget rights, which in turn beget growth. But Sen’s premise will have few takers in Pakistan where too many vested interests benefit more immediately from rights violations, whether in the form of extrajudicial killings, abductions, worker rights violations or religious persecution as a rent-seeking activity.
When moral, social and diplomatic drivers fail, money usually succeeds. Many countries have been spurred to improve their human rights record in order to attract foreign investors who fear the reputational risks of handing over wealth to rights violators. However, as Pakistan embraces CPEC as its big growth plan for the coming decades, this aspect can become increasingly irrelevant. Chinese companies are unlikely to ask the state to improve its track record on religious freedom or other human rights.
In the absence of any compelling reason to check religious persecution, Pakistan’s minorities are falling victim to political expediency whereby the short-term gains for political parties and other power brokers of taking aggressive positions against the most vulnerable are too attractive to overlook.
Ultimately, as a nation, we will have to find an internal motivating factor to support religious freedom. That motivating factor will have to be the realisation that if one group’s rights can be trampled today, then our rights (whoever ‘we’ may be) can be trampled tomorrow. Since there is no predicting who will hold power, whether political or institutional, in the decades to come, we can only take ease in the idea that our religious and other freedoms are protected no matter who’s in charge. Sadly, such insight is hardly our forte.