Asma Jahangir’s controversial appointment
Asma Jahangir is a leading Pakistani lawyer, advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan and human rights activist, who works both in Pakistan and internationally to prevent the persecution of religious minorities, women, and exploitation of children. She was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief from August 2004 to July 2010 (first attached to the former. Earlier, she served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. She is also the chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Recently, Asma Jahangir has been nominated as an expert to investigate human rights violations and alleged war crimes committed by Government Forces in Sri Lanka during the last phase of war against LTTE. Whereas, it is a singular honour for a Pakistani HR expert to be appointed to this sensitive task, it holds some caveats for the diplomatic ties between the friendly nations of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Wars against terror and insurgency, especially where miscreants may have inflicted tremendous losses to government forces, sometimes result in the use of brute force to crush the uprising.
Asma Jahangir is a respected name both as a fearless lawyer as well as a high profile human rights activist. She is a recipient of numerous national and international awards, like the 1995 Martin Ennals award for Human Rights Defenders as well as the Ramon Magsaysay Award for “greatness of spirit shown in service of the people“; the 2000 King Baudouin International development Prize, the 2001 Millennium Peace Prize by UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women), which she shared with her equally renowned sister Hina Jilani, the 2002 Lisl and Leo Eitinger Prize; in 2005 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the 1000 Women for Peace project; on March 23, 2010 Government of Pakistan conferred upon her the coveted medal Hilal-i-Imtiaz; On May 29, 2010 she received the Freedom of Worship Medal for her Human Rights and Religious Freedom activism; on December 10, 2010 she was awarded with the 2010 UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights, recognizing her efforts as a human rights defender; in 2012 she received the North-South Prize of the Council of Europe and on June 4, 2014, she was awarded the “Stefanus Prize”, a Human Rights Prize emphasizing the Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Her brusqueness and candor in both her fields of interest have sometimes landed her in trouble with the authorities in Pakistan. She is an articulate critic of the military. In March 2013, Asma Jahangir received the “Friends of (Bangladesh) Liberation War Honour” award from Sheikh Hasina on behalf of her late father. The news of Asma Jilani receiving the controversial award and her interview toThe Daily Star of Bangladesh criticizing Pakistan Army, created uproar in Pakistan.
With this background, her special selection by United Nations along with two other eminent international experts which hpw must have been made on merit should be considered in a different light. Her nomination is quite controversial in Sri Lanka as very few Sri Lankan politicians approve of the UN probe in the alleged human rights violations. Sri Lanka hosted the last Commonwealth Summit but the event was used by Britain, Canada and Australia to castigate Sri Lanka for its alleged human rights violation. The opposition group, on the other hand, welcomes the chance to embarrass the sitting government and use the UN findings to topple the sitting UPFA Government and bring about a regime change.
In her recent interview with BBC, Asma Jahangir asserted while warning the Sri Lankan Government of dire consequences if they tried to prevent people from testifying in the investigation. Her forewarning was not received by Sri Lankans in the spirit of justice but perceived as a Pakistani national interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Some Sri Lankans were hoping that the presence of a Pakistani national in the UN probe team would favour the Lankan Army’s stance and rescue them from embarrassment. The Sri Lankan Government has made up its mind not to let any such investigation team enter Sri Lanka at any stage and has so far refused to issue visit visas to the UN investigating team..
Under these trying circumstances, Asma Jahangir’s appointment has become contentious. Knowing Asma Jahangir’s track record, she will investigate diligently and aim to find evidence of the alleged human rights abuse. Sri Lanka being a friendly state does not expect a Pakistani national to oppose Sri Lankan Government on an issue that has already been supported by Pakistan during UNHRC resolution. Furthermore, India has also recently supported Sri Lankan stance and has opposed any international investigation within Sri Lanka apart from Indian Tamils who are pressing for a UN probe.
The possible solutions are that Asma Jahangir should herself volunteer to withdraw her nomination from the UN Investigating Team, which perhaps she may decline. The second option is that Asma Jahangir herself clarifies or the Pakistan Foreign Office makes a formal announcement that Asma Jahangir’s findings and recommendations in the probe in Sri Lanka (provided the team does land in Sri Lanka and conducts the investigation) will be an individual act and will not reflect the official policy of Pakistan.
We already stand isolated in the international community, have very few friends left, and should not lose our cordial relations with Sri Lanka due to diplomatic irritants. Readers may recall that the terrorist attack targeting the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on March 3, 2009 had tested the relations between the two nations. Fortunately, no lasting damage was done and the two nations renewed their pledge of cooperation and the two cricketing nations are playing regular matches with each other.
Hopefully Asma Jahangir will be cognizant of the sensitivity of her appointment. Expediency is essential since the investigation team has been tasked to submit its first report to UN in September 2014