For at least twenty years now, I have maintained that I. A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is a man ahead of his time. Rehman Saheb has spearheaded direct and strategic assistance to victims of inhumane acts and those deprived of basic human rights. More importantly, he has presciently been warning us since the 1990s, on the need to institute some key human rights apparatuses into our laws and society.
At a time when no one was remotely open to the possibility, Rehman Saheb was consistently arguing over the necessity to abolish the death penalty and the need for aligning juvenile criminology with universalist human rights principles.
Collectively, we have ignored voices such as his at our own socio-legal peril. Worse, by ignoring the counsel and wisdom of such voices, a new wave of self-aggrandising, social media-hungry second generation activists is finding itself responsible for and on the losing side of human rights progress in the country. Arguably, the recklessness demonstrated on the Shafqat case may just have contributed towards a chilling effect on the issue of death penalty.
Admittedly, the environment has not been enabling either. But we cannot just blame the current conservative government which has ideologically and historically spurned universalist and human rights imperatives. True, in the post-9/11 era, conservative commentators have raised the stakes in demonising human rights organisations for promoting supposedly anti-Islamic western agendas.
However, additionally, many arrogant voices amongst a new generation of self-imagined Bolshevikian “anti-NGO” activists have even suggested (in cyber space, of course) that the Human Rights Commission is part of an imperialist universalist neoliberal agenda that must be dismantled as an obstacle towards the true revolution.
This has left the human rights movement floundering for support and credibility in the growing conspiracy-ridden environment. The Shafqat case has, in many ways, become a victim of this new narrative.
The complication has been that the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty after the Peshawar massacre of schoolchildren was a huge backlash against the efforts of those who championed rehabilitation rather than execution of the incarcerated. But even more so, it is that the establishment of the military courts has sealed out any possibility of a reasoned democratic selective process by which we can expect to deal with the complex issue of sifting out terrorists from normal criminals.
As many legal experts have commented, the effects of this will bear out on us in the near future too.
Today, the Shafqat case is being reduced to the simplistic legal argument over whether he is a juvenile or not on the basis of his appearance. This is an absurd justification and of course, the conservatives are having a field day busting NGOs and the liberal human rights defenders over his alleged fake birth certificate. But, the activists defending Shafqat have clearly contributed to this end, too. The bumbling approaches and unresolved debates that define a new generation of human rights activists in the country expose them to be well-meaning, well-educated but completely lacking in humility or willingness to learn from history.
Therefore, what needs to be reclaimed is that with regard to the ethical principle and specific policy, the case is bigger than the subject himself — it is equally about the principled stand against capital punishment, about legal methodology and also about human rights activist strategies.
When we relinquish the principled stand against death penalty or the importance of sensitive juvenile laws by dismissing these as part of the liberal, western, enlightenment inspired discourse, we get stuck with just material evidence as our defence. Even on that point, when we advocate for a critical need for forensics in legal investigations, we are faced with the anti-DNA recommendations for rape cases by the Council of Islamic Ideology.
So clearly, the task for human rights activists is an uphill one in which it is critical to clear the space and shape the narrative, get a campaign going on the issue of capital punishment rather than lobbying on just one case. This does not mean a subject should be sacrificed for the larger cause but that the stakes cannot be raised so high that in the end we lose both the subject and the cause.
Historical amnesia has meant that the cacophonous disinformation on social media on such issues has misled activists in their dealing with both juvenile but also, blasphemy cases. Despite their lofty critiques of the ‘rescue narrative’ of post-9/11 feminist and human rights activism in Muslim contexts, their own contributions towards saving certain victims of the legal lacunas somehow qualifies as the right kind of rescue for the right kind of victim. Additionally, the role of social media in such campaigns has allowed all sorts of inexperienced and delusionary grand-standings that convince each other over their virtual importance without realising the limitations of such strategies in the real world.
The point being that earlier human rights activism used to be more holistic and aimed at taking up a case towards the larger cause of removing the very node of the discriminatory law, policy or even changing the legal attitude of the courts. Today, the fragmentation of NGOs and the human rights movement has meant that energies are put towards winning individual cases with a splash while leaving the systemic discriminatory laws intact. And even if legal strategies have had to change because of the suffocating environment, there has to be experience and prudence guiding the political methods of extricating justice.
It may be ungenerous to say but for this generation it seems that their choice of critical cases has been defined by the post-9/11 agenda and that the issues of blasphemy, death penalty, drones and terrorism are not so much causes for them but more part of their PhD thesis work. That is a major shift and difference between Rehman Saheb’s movement politics versus the individualistic glory-seeking, knight-rider, splashy media campaign approach. In one-man/woman campaigns, there is no room for debate and no need at arriving at painful or cautious consensus. There is also then little wiggling room, support system or plan B options.
One fears that the most despairing outcome of this case lies in Shafqat’s own fate. But what is completely discouraging is that unless we as activists learn from our mistakes and errors of judgment and if we persist in our unwillingness to rely on wiser counsel, the future of human rights in Pakistan will be one that is in deficit of the much-needed I. A. Rehmans and Asma Jahangirs.
That’s a cause of deeper worry.