COVID-19: A Catalyst for Minority Exploitation in Pakistan
For years now, religious minorities in Pakistan have faced an appalling range of assaults on their rights that has included the desecration of their sites of worship, abduction, the forceful conversion and coercion of young girls into marriage, and the illegal acquisition of their property. All major minorities, including Hindus, Christians, Shias, Sikhs, and Ahmadis, have been subjected to prejudiced treatment.
The roots of Pakistan’s minority exploitation go back to the year 1947, when an undivided India was partitioned on religious lines. While the larger part chose to become a secular republic, Pakistan was christened as an Islamic state. Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah espoused the notion that all of its citizens would be free to practice and profess the faith of their choice. This promise, however, was soon nullified when the constitution and other laws of the country began to acquire a distinctly discriminatory shade.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan proclaims a right to religious freedom in Article 20, but because that right is subjected to “law, public order and morality,” it is not absolute. Further, Article 2 declares Pakistan to be an “Islamic Republic,” and Article 31 mandates that the government must strive to foster the Islamic way of life. Several other provisions have also been criticized as religiously bigoted.
After the dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-haq came to power in the 1970s, he undertook a systematic Islamization of the country. He privileged a particularly narrow form of Islam. Sunnis, the majority sect, were protected by new legislation, while Shias and Ahmadiyyas were considered by many hardliners to be non-Muslims and faced discrimination. Since 1970, the Ahamdiyyas in particular have borne the brunt of this discrimination due to the addition of Article 260 to the constitution, which stated that they were non-Muslims. This not only impeded them from practicing their faith but also made them the subject of serious discrimination by those who were considered “true” worshippers of Islam by the state. Many laws conforming to the standard of Sharia were put in place, including the 1979 Hudood Ordinances, the infamous blasphemy laws of 1982 and 1986, and finally the 1984 Law of Evidence, all of which severely discriminated against religious minorities and women.
The blasphemy laws in particular have proven to be extremely dangerous. They criminalize acts that are perceived to insult Islam and can easily be used as tools of religious exploitation. For instance, the rules elucidated in sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code outlaw acts and speech insulting religion or defiling the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, places of worship, or religious symbols. Of these, section 295-C has proved to be especially problematic, as it is couched in excessively broad terms that enable the most mundane actions to be classified as serious offenses.
The system of blasphemy laws has two major flaws. First, as explained above, the laws are often misused to exploit minorities, which makes those communities vulnerable to mob violence and hate crimes. Secondly, blasphemy “offenders” are frequently taken to court on the basis of information that is embellished or entirely fabricated and then denied a fair trial. The accused can be held guilty without thorough proof of intent. Pakistan’s judiciary lacks the independence and conviction to raise its voice against incidents of blatant discrimination. Moreover, there exists a parallel system of Sharia courts in Pakistan that has the power to overrule all other secular courts.
Those convicted of blasphemy are generally prescribed a punishment that is disproportionate to the crime. In fact, though it has never been put into practice, the official maximum punishment for blasphemy is death; this is particularly damning in the face of international law standards that do not ban the death penalty, but do impose significant and necessary confinements to its applications. The UN has decreed that it may only be applied to “the most serious crimes and under the strictest limits.”
These provisions of Pakistani law and their applications have been condemned time and again by local and international observers. The UN Committeee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination declared in 2009 that Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws may be used in a discriminatory manner against religious minority groups.”
Ingrained societal prejudices that are supported by a biased legal system together create conditions that are ripe for large-scale discrimination against minority communities. This is precisely what has happened in Pakistan. For years now, members of the Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Shia, and Ahmadiyya communities have faced a continuous and unrelenting assault on their rights. This is evident from the mass exodus of these minorities to neighbouring, Hindu-majority India.
Discrimination in Pakistan has been documented by many international observers. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlighted the issue in its 2020 annual report: Noting that the prejudiced conduct was both egregious and systematic, the commission chose to continue designating Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern.” At the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Commission this year, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that minorities in Pakistan continue to face bias and violence in law and practice.
Recently, as the COVID-19 pandemic has diverted the world’s attention, cases of discrimination against minorities have risen significantly. Several incidents have been reported in which Christians and Hindus were denied food rations. Christians form a sizable portion of frontline workers in Pakistan, and they are at a high risk of contracting the virus because they are not endowed with the protective kits that are considered essential by health experts. At a time when being at home for “social distancing” is of paramount importance for both individual and collective health, there have even been reports of Hindu houses in Punjab being demolished.
In an April 13 press release, the USCIRF noted the denial of coronavirus-related food aid to religious minorities and described these actions as “simply reprehensible.” It highlighted the case of the Karachi-based Saylani Welfare International Trust, which denied food aid to Hindu and Christian homeless and seasonal workers on the grounds that such aid was reserved only for members of the Muslim community.
Governments must account for minority concerns in their reactions to COVID-19 for reasons of both legitimacy and policy viability. International law requires governments to safeguard the human rights of every individual — including that of religious freedom — when taking measures to ensure the general well-being, even in the midst of an emergency. The WHO has emphasized that “all countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption and respecting human rights” during the pandemic.
Under international human rights law, Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are the main provisions safeguarding religious freedom. The ICCPR prohibits any “coercion” that could “impair” that freedom; yet the denial of basic needs to minorities because of their faith, especially at a time of emergency, clearly amounts to coercion. It could be argued that such actions even encourage the oppressed to convert. Pakistan’s treatment of minorities in the past and during the pandemic violates the principles laid down in the ICCPR and the UDHR, to both of which Pakistan is a signatory.
Moreover, Article 42 of the International Health Regulations requires countries to ensure that health measures are “initiated and completed without delay, and applied in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner.” Pakistan’s reluctance to grant aid to religious minorities is in contravention of this principle. The Pakistani authorities have failed to ensure equality, dignity, rule of law, and the protection of human rights to all citizens, and thus are responsible for serious international law violations.
Inadequacy of State Response
Facing continuous backlash from human rights groups, Pakistan has made some efforts to remedy the situation. The establishment of the National Minority Commission in May 2020 was perhaps the most important of these, but this too has been dubbed a half-hearted effort by many. First, the body was not established through parliamentary legislation, as Pakistan Supreme Court guidelines recommend. The action was instead taken through a cabinet decision, which deprives the commission of any power to actually enforce its edicts. Secondly, and most importantly, the Ahmadiyyas — who are among the most persecuted minorities in Pakistan — have been denied a seat at the table. Excluding them casts doubt over the legitimacy of the commission.
Another recent step was the 2019 establishment of the Kartarpur corridor to make it easier for Sikhs from both India and Pakistan to access the holy site of Darbar Sahib. Although it was demanded for years, this move does little to solve the issues faced by Sikhs on a daily basis. The Pakistani government has also undertaken the renovation of some Hindu temples. But is renovating temples really a step forward if a greater number are razed each day than refurbished? In lieu of thoroughly addressing the problems faced by minorities, the government’s solutions amount to just posturing.
With an economy on the verge of collapse, Pakistan has for years relied on aid from Western countries like the United States and those in the European Union. Its demands have been granted even as human rights abuses take place every day in the country. For example, in the aftermath of the 2011 Sindh floods, the EU granted Pakistan GSP+ status in order to boost its economy. This label lifts import duties on all of a beneficiary country’s goods, which in turn enables it to create jobs and alleviate poverty. Pakistan was required to sign 27 international human rights and labor conditions to acquire the status. Even though it has demonstrated only minimal compliance with these conditions, the EU has continued to extend the GSP+ status every year. Until recently, the United States also gave Pakistan both military and economic aid, notwithstanding the country’s obvious human rights violations.
Since Pakistan has essentially been granted a free pass by powerful actors, complacency has set in. No significant steps have been taken to correct historic misdeeds, and discrimination has only become more evident in the present.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the need to grant minorities equal status is more pressing than ever. To achieve parity, there is a need for a serious overhaul of a Pakistani legal system that enables acts of mistreatment as well as a change in the societal mindset that breeds hate and mistrust of minorities. The international community must play a part in bringing about this change. In an ideal world, all humans would have the right to live with dignity, good health, and the freedom to profess their faith. No stone must be left unturned in ensuring that we make this dream a reality.