FoRB on the Frontlines: In the face of government opposition

 In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.

Fatima Atif is a human rights defender working in Pakistan:

“Pakistan has a population of over 210 million people, with a wide range of ethnic, religious, sectarian and tribal identities. This diversity makes Pakistan a challenging place to live, particularly for those who are in minority and have limited say and access to decision and policy-making forums.

I have worked as a human rights defender in Pakistan for 15 years. I have regularly faced bullying and online harassment for my work, as well as for being a female Hazara activist. (Editor’s Note: The Hazara are a minority community in Pakistan who adhere to the Shi’a branch of Islam).

The security situation in the country is volatile and there are multiple rival armed opposition groups fuelling armed conflict in different regions of the country. In this tug of war, only innocent citizens have been brutally killed and victimized.

 The government has taken several initiatives under international pressure and has already established the Federal Ministry of Human Rights, an umbrella body for the protection and promotion of human rights in the country with an aim to create an inclusive society with a culture of tolerance, peace and mutual respect and gender equality. However, there are multiple examples where the government could not protect human rights defenders and they were victimized by unknown or known groups.

The state is not fully ready to recognize the importance of human rights defenders’ work and activism and most of the time, considers them opposition to its overall mandate of ‘protecting people.’

Human right defenders face multiple threats and challenges that include forced disappearance, abduction, illegal interrogation, life threats, online trolling and shrinking livelihood options and job opportunities.

In December 2017, Ms Died Saeeda, a leading civil society worker and human rights defender from Lahore, was trolled and harassed online to the level where she started receiving emails and fake information from online attackers who wanted to damage her campaign of recovering her friend Mr. Reza Mehmood Khan, who was subject to an enforced disappearance due to his campaign of bringing people together from India and Pakistan through multiple people to people engagements.

Ms. Gul Bukhari, a journalist, human rights and women rights activist, was abducted by unknown persons in June 2018 when she was heading to a TV channel to participate in a talk show. After several hours, she was dropped back at her home by the men who abducted her.

In October 2018, Ms. Gulalai Ismail, another renowned human rights activist from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, was detained at Islamabad airport for several hours by government officials when she returned from London. After a few hours, she was released on bail, but her travel documents were kept by investigating agency and her name was put on exit control list (ECL). According to Ms. Gulalai, she was detained and investigated due to her affiliation with Pashtoon Tahfuz Movement (PTM). This movement is simply demanding peace and right to life in north western tribal areas which have been badly affected by Taliban insurgency over the last decade.

The overall situation in the country is not conducive or friendly for human rights defenders, especially female activists who are being trolled and harassed online, physically threatened, mistreated by authorities and labelled as ‘bad women’ and ’shameless women.’

Under such circumstances, HRDs have been facing really tough times and conditions; those that continue their work or mission of defending human rights in Pakistan are doing a commendable job, and everyone must support them by all possible means.”

Pakistan’s Shi’a Hazara community, to which Fatima belongs, reside predominantly in Quetta and have been subject to ongoing sectarian violence. As a result of a sustained campaign of targeted killings, suicide attacks and bombings, hundreds of Shi’a Hazara have been killed in the last five years. More information on the violence faced by the Hazara is available in CSW’s General Briefing on Pakistan.

Read our previous interviews with HRDs from India and Nepal.