Planned hanging of Christian mother in Pakistan highlights need for us to place rights at heart of foreign policy

Turning a blind eye to Islamist oppression in Pakistan and elsewhere is dangerous. Our foreign policy should be based on human rights.

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Jamaat-e-Islami's version of Pakistani flag
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Will James
On 6 April 2011 04:56

A young woman is going to die, for being different. Her children are going to be orphaned. Her husband made a widower. A community – already living in fear and suffering daily persecution – will be cowed into submission, and learn the true dangers of nonconformity. This is not the description of an Orwellian fiction, nor is it a woeful tale from history. It is a living, breathing reality in our 21st century world.

Aasia Bibi is a peasant from the Punjab region of Pakistan. In June 2009, after collecting water for her and her fellow farm workers, a row broke out. The other workers refused to drink the water Aasia had gathered. It was unclean, because she was different. Aasia denied this, and dared to argue her case. Just because she was different – because her views and her actions didn’t fit into the accepted orthodoxy – didn’t mean that she was unclean.

The turn of events following this affair was unleashed at a dizzying speed. A mob gathered at Aasia’s house to attack and even kill her. She was then charged by those supposedly protecting her, under a law designed to stamp out the unorthodox and the heretical. Aasia was put on trial, found guilty and convicted on the basis of evidence which has been ridiculed by human rights organisations and legal experts. Her sentence? Execution by hanging, scheduled for November 2011. Yet, what was it that Aasia Bibi did that was so eccentric, so insulting and despicable that it merits taking away her life. Aasia Bibi’s crime was to be a Christian in modern day Pakistan. The law that she was charged, tried and convicted under was Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code – the infamous ‘blasphemy’ law.

Campaigners against Ms. Bibi’s conviction range far and wide. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have both urged the Pakistani authorities to free Ms. Bibi, and the European Parliament has condemned the ruling. In Pakistan, those who have been brave enough to defend Ms. Bibi’s case and call for reform of the ‘blasphemy’ laws have been marginalised, attacked and killed for speaking out. Most notably, Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities (himself a Christian) have been assassinated in recent months for their outspoken support for Ms. Bibi and their opposition to Section 295-C. (Taseer was shot 26 times by his own bodyguard in January, and Bhatti was gunned down in an attack in March, the responsibility for which was claimed by Tehrik-i-Taliban.)

And Christians are not the only religious minority to be targeted by Pakistan’s growing religious insurgency. On Sunday, over 40 people were killed in the latest suicide attack against Sufi Muslims, and last year around 100 members of the Ahmadi Muslim minority were killed in Lahore.

But what has this got to do with us? As terrible as Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy’ laws are, and as unjust and upsetting as Ms. Bibi’s case is, what concern is it of ours? What can we do about it? And if we could do anything, should we? Pakistan is a vital partner in the ‘war on terror’, the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the maintenance of peace and stability in South Asia. Sticking our noses in their domestic legislative affairs is hardly the surest strategy to endear us to Pakistani policymakers. In fact, coming in the wake of a decade of Blairite moral certainties, isn’t this exactly the type of neo-imperialist, sovereignty-violating interference in the internal affairs of an unstable and nuclear-armed Muslim country that we should be avoiding?

In a word, no. It is because Pakistan is so important that we cannot remain silent. It is because it is so central to our security in the fight against radical Islamist terrorism that we cannot allow rampant disregard for the rights of minorities. It is because it is so crucial in searching for a lasting settlement in Afghanistan and a reduction in tensions with India that we cannot sit idly by whilst radicals push the liberal, broad-minded and moderate elements that have long played a central role in Pakistan’s history out of 21st century Pakistani life.

Radical Islamists have a knife to Pakistan’s throat. Accepting Pakistan’s assistance in the ‘war on terror’ as a quid pro quo for allowing intolerant, violent human rights abuses to run riot through Pakistani society is not only morally bankrupt, but directly counter to our own interest in isolating and defeating a destructive ideology that threatens us all. Today an unknown Christian mother from the Punjab countryside. Tomorrow a hotel in downtown Mumbai, or a passenger airline above the Atlantic, or an attack in a major Western city. 

So what do we do? Should the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister assemble their national security advisers, prime NATO to impose a No-Fly Zone across the Hindu Kush and drop democracy on Pakistan from 40,000 feet? Not likely. Nor sensible. What is needed, however, is a fundamental re-evaluation in our approach, not only to Pakistan, but to international affairs as a whole. At the heart of our philosophy should be a steadfast commitment to human rights. The US State Department and the UK Foreign Office already compile a lists of the state of human rights across the world. (In Britain, the latest edition was released last week). What is lacking, however, is any real effort to tie those findings to our overall foreign policy, especially in the British case. If the commitment to human rights and the other pillars of a stable, free society – such as the rule of law, free and fair elections, freedoms of speech, association, religion and women’s rights – becomes the standard by which the UK, EU and US judge other countries when it comes to trade and investment, military assistance or signing off on generous aid packages, we automatically convert our economic, cultural and political strengths into incentives for positive change across the world.

Government policy doesn’t change on its own, however. In a speech in apartheid-South Africa in 1966, Robert Kennedy said “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… [that can] build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Now is the time to start your own ripple. Write to the Pakistani Embassy, the US State Department, the British Foreign Office and your elected representatives on behalf of Aasia Bibi and other oppressed minorities in Pakistan, and speak out against the injustice of Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy’ laws. Perhaps not only an innocent woman’s life can be saved, but the much needed reappraisal of our foreign policy can finally begin.

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