Human rights defender blames Pakistani state for ‘barbaric’ honour killing

TANYA NOLAN: She’s been a fearless advocate for women and a pioneer of human rights law in her home country of Pakistan for more than 30 years.

Pro-democracy lawyer and campaigner Hina Jilani says she’s always felt a need to speak out against injustice otherwise she says she has no right to complain about it.

That outspokenness has led her to found Pakistan’s first legal aid centre and Human Rights Commission, it’s earned her the Milenium Peace Prize for Women, and led to her appointment as a UN Special Representative on Human Rights and advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan

But Hina Jilani is much more than her impressive CV.

She’s in Australia as a guest of the Human Rights Law Center and she spoke to me from Melbourne earlier today.

Well, Hina Jilani, as a human rights pioneer in Pakistan, you must despair at the state of human rights in Pakistan right now.

HINA JILANI: Yes I do, but as you know, human rights defenders can never afford to despair of anything, so we have to find a way to hope always that things will improve.

One of the bright sides of this whole situation in Pakistan is that we have a very strong human rights movement and a very strong and a very credible women’s rights movement.

TANYA NOLAN: So how can you explain or reconcile the recent stoning to death of 25-year-old pregnant woman, Farzana Parveen?

HINA JILANI: I think mostly it is the failure of the state, in fact, where the state agents present at the place were not able to stop this kind of barbaric incident from happening.

It wasn’t actually stoning to death in the sense that, you know, people usually understand it as a form of punishment. It was actually the opportunistic use of bricks laying around to kill that woman because they tried to shoot her down and when she wasn’t shot they picked up whatever they could to hit her with it but, and the police were there.

I think in some ways it’s very important to understand that, while some action has happened in terms of bringing new legislation in to confront this issue of honour killings, the state has never really used the law to deter incidents or to make the law an instrument of social change and here I think the civil society also, despite all its efforts, doesn’t seem to have gained much in terms of changing the mindset.

TANYA NOLAN: So how can you explain these killings of women? What do they tell us about life in Pakistan?

HINA JILANI: Well, they certainly tell us that the Pakistani state certainly needs to do much more than it had done so far in terms of making laws operational so that there is a complete sense that there will be no impunity for violating women’s right to life, violating their right to liberty and their freedom of movement and in fact giving women more dignity.

TANYA NOLAN: But the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan which you founded says that at least 860 women were victims of these murders last year. The estimate, that’s a gross underestimate from what you and others say. How is it that people carry out these killings with relative impunity?

HINA JILANI: It’s because, as I said the failure of the state. At the local level, the police does not respond and you know, when a woman is killed by her own family, there’s no one really to pursue the case and the state either turns its face away or actively helps those who have perpetuated the crime to escape any kind of punishment.

TANYA NOLAN: I want to get where the state’s falling down in prosecuting these crimes in a moment, but if we can go back to how does a society exist where people feel that they can carry out these crimes against their own family members? Can you try and explain to us, who don’t understand life in Pakistan, how on earth people believe that this is a just way to carry out justice, if you like?

HINA JILANI: You know, I really don’t think it’s important to explain it. It’s more important to fight it and that’s what I do and a lot of people like me do. We know that this is not a state of affairs that is any way acceptable to the society at large and particularly to the women of Pakistan.

TANYA NOLAN: But that same mindset that exists that allows these people to carry out these crimes must also pervade the people in power, the institutions, the legal institutions that fail to act on them so can you explain that mindset?

HINA JILANI: You see that mindset is there, but as I explained earlier, we have brought the class that’s ruling for instance legislators etc to a state where no legislator will now get up in the Parliament and say this is a part of our culture and we will not do anything about it, which is what they did say.

The Senate in Pakistan resisted a resolution against honour killing 1999 and by saying this, but now this is not what they can ever say. They will pass a number of resolutions, they will pass laws. The question is will they put the support of social policy of the state behind the law that they create.

TANYA NOLAN: Well, you’re a member of the Elders, a group of World Elders including Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, Jimmy Carter; Nelson Mandela was its founder and the idea of this group if I understand it correctly is to guide countries on issues of democracy and human rights. Have you had much influence in Pakistan?

HINA JILANI: Well, my influence in Pakistan doesn’t really start with my becoming a part of the Elders. I am a part of the human rights movement which is one of the most credible movements in Pakistan and does enjoy a public credibility, but you know in a country like Pakistan where you have intermittent democracy only, usually it’s a military regime, how much of an influence can you have on a military dictator who has come into existence as a result of a coup where democratic values do not prevail? So really it’s an unresponsive state in most of the times.

TANYA NOLAN: And I suspect as a woman too, you probably get short shrift in a country where women’s rights are not upheld?

HINA JILANI: Well, yes generally that’s true, but I think that by now women’s rights have been put on a priority agenda of all political elements in Pakistan, including the very conservative Islamic elements, so nobody can now say that there’s no need to give attention to women’s rights.

TANYA NOLAN: Have you had direct dealings with the government of Nawaz Sharif?

HINA JILANI: Yes, on many issues, especially on women’s rights issues. Unfortunately again, the situation in Pakistan is such that rights right now are not a priority with the government that’s fighting for its own life with the dominating question of civil-military relationship. And we have a state where terrorism is rife. It is a state which has unfortunately been unwilling or unable to deal with the question of religious extremism.

TANYA NOLAN: Well you rightly mentioned Nawaz Sharif’s government being unable to quell the violence and the recent attack on Karachi’s airport is testament to that fact that they are unable to deal with the persuasive influence of the Taliban.

How precarious is Nawaz Sharif’s grip on power in that country, do you think?

HINA JILANI: You know the election dates bring forward a very clear mandate in his favour, but at the same time, I think people need to understand that no civilian government is really stable unless and until the military is either able to get it to subscribe to some of the priorities and the agenda that the military has so that’s one problem.

The other of course is its own hesitation. In taking on issues where he would really have to show real leadership and turn the population from a confused, you know, perception of what the Taliban are and make sure that the state remains secure against these forces.

I see no reason why any government including that of Nawaz Sharif cannot do that. The question is not the fact that they cannot. The question is will they, is there a political will to do it?

TANYA NOLAN: Hina Jilani, lovely to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time.

HINA JILANI: Thank you.

TANYA NOLAN: The despairing but ever hopeful Hina Jilani, and she will be the guest speaker at tonight’s Annual Human Rights Dinner, hosted by the Human Rights Law Center.

And a longer version of that interview is available on our website and it includes discussion of her views on the use of drone strikes to fight terrorism.

A link to the article can be found here.