Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Earlier this year I asked someone who had been a senior minister in the government of Pakistan why the country could not change laws which discriminated against minorities. I asked the question because more than 80 people from the minority Ahmadi sect had just been killed in two mosques in Lahore, which at the time served as a wake-up call of the dangers of growing religious intolerance in Pakistan.
His answer was unhesitating. You could not possibly do something like that in Pakistan.
Such is the power of the religious lobbies that no government dares challenge them. Each ”wake-up” call is soon forgotten until another injustice against religious minorities punches its way to the surface.
The latest was the sentencing to death for blasphemy of a Pakistani Christian woman. According to press reports Aasia Bibi had been working in the fields in Punjab province when she was sent to fetch water. When she returned, some Muslim women refused to drink it, saying it was unclean because it had been carried by a Christian. As the argument escalated, police became involved and Aasia Bibi was charged with blasphemy for allegedly insulting Islam. After a year in jail, she was convicted and sentenced to become the first woman to be hanged for blasphemy in Pakistan.
For the first time in many months, the future of Pakistan is being determined not in the fight against Islamist militants, but within its institutions — its judiciary, its political parties, its government and its military. Last week’s decision by the Supreme Court to strike down a 2007 amnesty given to politicians and bureaucrats has provided Pakistan with a rare opportunity to remodel itself as a civilian democracy based on the rule of law. But the way forward is so fraught with difficulties that assessments of its chances of success are at best sober, at worst ominous.
The court decision to strike down the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) affects some 8,000 politicians and bureaucrats on a list of those who had been covered by the amnesty, including the defence and interior ministers. President Asif Ali Zardari had also been covered by the amnesty, but remains protected by presidential immunity. Such was the upheaval created by the ruling that foreign exchange markets were briefly shaken last week by unfounded rumours of a military coup. The real impact is likely to be more slow-burning.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told a joint session of parliament last month he was committed to wide-ranging constitutional reforms including surrendering the power of the president to dismiss elected governments — a power that many Pakistanis feel has brought much grief to the nation. He also pledged his faith in an independent judiciary and said all outstanding matters would be resolved in line with the constitution.
Those promises have slipped somewhat from public view in recent weeks, preoccupied as the nation and those with a stake in it are with the multiple security challenges and a looming economic meltdown.
The recipient of this year’s prize will be announced in Oslo on Oct. 10 from among 197 nominees, with those fighting for human rights among those tipped to win in the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is Pakistan’s High Commissioner to London and a former advisor to the late Benazir Bhutto.
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
When former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, agreed in March to form a coalition government in Pakistan, the words of the 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli seemed apt:
“Coalitions, though successful, have always found this, that their triumph has been brief,” I quoted him as saying, in a posting which asked whether the coalition between Sharif’s PML (N) and Zardari’s PPP would survive.