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Minority protection

Jamaatul Ahrar claimed responsibility for the recent terrorist attacks targeting two churches in Lahore, which resulted in several deaths. In retaliation, an angry mob lynched two innocent citizens (in police custody) they thought were involved. The state stood by as a silent observer. Episodes of attacks against religious and ethnic minorities have sadly become routine. While the government condemns such acts, it is unable to prevent them. The state has not owned up to its responsibility to proactively protect the minorities’ right to life.

The state argues it is not the state, but terrorist/non-state actors who violate this right. Disregarding for a moment the state’s failure to adequately prosecute the perpetrators, or its role in sowing the roots of such aggression, the question is: what level of positive (in which the state takes action) obligation is required from a government to protect the civil, political and socio-economic rights of vulnerable communities?

The Westphalian state has provided negative (where the state is passive) rights and freedoms to its population. Western tradition has valued civil and political over social, economic and cultural rights and has continued to view only the transgression of the former by the state as a true rights violation. In other words, there is little legal obligation on the state to positively protect human rights when it is not directly causing the violation itself.

Further, while the judicial system is available for violations of individually vested legal rights, this has not been so for the dispensation of group rights including minority freedoms. This was not always the case in Europe. In the pre-Second World War period, several states through treaties assumed the responsibility of protecting minorities as a group. Minorities were to be given special consideration so they could be equal in fact as well as in the eyes of the law. Such forms of protection did not work in the run-up to the Holocaust. Thus their subsequent absence in international conventions could partly be a result of the view that by demarcating a group of people as a minority, the state effectively ‘others’ them and alienates them from the majority of the population.

The state must set aside a budget for the realisation of rights. Seminal international rights treaties retain this approach. There is no operational convention that thematically focuses on the protection of religion or minorities, while there exists one on the rights of the child, the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.

Further, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights primarily focuses on negative rights and freedoms; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment requires the involvement of a public official for acts to be classified as such; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, while focusing on positive obligations attributable to a state, views these rights as aspirational, not legally vested and subject to progressive realisation. Pakistan is a signatory to these UN conventions.

Naturally, a number of developing and non-Western states including the communist bloc and Islamic states challenged the present understanding of state responsibility and the hierarchy and conceptualisation of international human rights. While at international fora, Pakistan has been a protagonist in this resistance movement, at the national level it starts to present contradictory arguments to shirk responsibility and obstruct accountability.

Rights become compromised when the state fails to expend public funding to enable them. Apart from legal reform, such as stren­gthening hate speech laws, the state’s duty to protect minority rights means it must set aside a budget aimed at providing the infrastructure for the realisation of such rights. The government must be held accountable and actively protect and promote minority rights. It needs to allocate public funds for effecting awareness drives promoting tolerance. Among other measures, the state media should be employed and the curricula revised to promote diversity and harmony.

The state needs to have a long-term sustainable policy aimed at protecting minority rights and religious freedoms. It is true that positive state duties in the West do not require as much expenditure as the provision of positive rights would in Pakistan. However, such an allocation of finite funds becomes a legislative prerogative, and once allocated the state can be held directly accountable via the judiciary for its spending and performance. There is precedent for such an approach — positive obligations have been monitored and dispensed with successfully in states like South Africa through active judicial involvement.

Sadly, in Pakistan in response to every major attack on minorities, political parties at best offer condemnations and the government sometimes provides monetary compensation to the families of the victims. These gestures are hardly solutions to an endemic problem.

The writer is the author of International Law and Drone Strikes in Pakistan: The Legal and Socio-political Aspects.

Sikander Ahmed Shah, "Minority protection," Dawn. 2015-03-24.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Drone attacks , Target killing , Cultural Rights , International rights , Social rights , Human rights , Social reforms , Religious issues , Civil rights , World war II , Economic rights , Churches-Lahore , Judiciary , Terrorists , Lahore , Pakistan