FoRB on the Frontlines: It’s Time to Defend the Defender

Over the past month CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region. Today, International Human Rights Day, we present a guest blog post by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.

“Human rights defenders are those community and religious leaders, journalists, activists, lawyers, trade unionists and others who take on the plight of the most marginalised in their society. These defenders of human rights represent people in the face of oppression, violence and harassment, doing what they can to hold perpetrators to account, and uphold the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), among many other resolutions that states across the world are committed to upholding. Many of these defenders face the same intense persecution as those they seek to defend, with many facing threats and risks of violence, torture and even death on a daily basis.

That is why, this year, I joined calls to award the Nobel peace prize to the global community of human rights defenders – especially as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 10 December.

As the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, I believe that this declaration must be given foremost importance amongst the international community moving forward, with regards to the protection and sanctity of all human rights worldwide. Indeed, this year the recipients of the Nobel peace prize were human rights defenders Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, further proof that the work of HRDs worldwide helps to bring about lasting change, peace and reconciliation.

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The Refugee Crisis: “What caused them to flee in the first place?”

On World Refugee Day, CSW explores one of the major root causes of the refugee crisis.

Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos. Image shot 06/2015. Exact date unknown.

Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos.

The current refugee crisis has become a major news story with much of the focus placed on asking, “Where will they go?”

A seeming backlash against the unprecedented influx into Europe in particular has led some to respond: “Anywhere but here”, and has unleashed what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has termed  “widespread anti-migrant rhetoric”, which in turn has fostered “a climate of divisiveness, xenophobia and even… vigilante violence.”

Yet very few people have asked, “What caused them to flee in the first place, and how can we best address this?”

One key reason is the increase in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) around the world. *Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.

“Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.”

These violations often take place in societies where other human rights are being abused and in situations generally characterised by an absence of rule of law, corruption, economic disparity and authoritarian rule.

Issues of race, ethnicity, political opinion and gender usually intersect with religious persecution; consequently, religion-based asylum claims often include other grounds as well.

Religious persecution takes many forms

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Youhanabad: This Is Our Land, This Is Our Spirit

For 65 years we have tolerated aggression against us so something must have drastically gone wrong that day for that to happen.’

Walking into Youhanabad on the outskirts of Lahore you notice the busyness of life; children playing, street vendors selling fruit and delicious fried snacks and motorbikes and scooters whizzing pass. Two years ago that the scene was transformed – chaos, carnage and confusion ensued on the morning of Sunday 15th March in 2015 when two suicide bombers approached Christ Church and St John’s Catholic Church and blew themselves up killing 15 and injuring around 70 people. After the bombing a mob was instigated, protest turned into violence and violence resulted in two people being lynched.

‘Within a few minutes victims became aggressors’

Suddenly the narrative changed, with many people thinking the attacks were a pre-planned Government conspiracy. Victims of the bomb blast who were Christians were refused treatment and turned away from hospitals. Women hired as domestic workers to do cooking and cleaning were laid off and young men returning to work were told they had no jobs. Retaliatory crimes were committed against Christians with police collusion and police raided Christian localities in Lahore indiscriminately arresting young men; there were complaints of ill treatment and torture.

Youhanabad was built when the Caritas Mission gave funds to Christians to obtain land outside of Lahore. Historically the area had a reputation associated with poverty and crime; as a consequence many Muslims on the outside had developed a very poor view of the Christians living there. After 30 years with the assistance of NGOs, Christians have worked hard to raise their status through better education and employment opportunities changing the attitudes of their Muslim neighbours.

In the aftermath

After the tragedy around 100 men were arrested using media profiling and video footage from mobile phones. A hearing took place to cancel the bails of some of the young men who were arrested; however, the judge maintained the bails and instead questioned the police for not pursuing their investigation and the criminals who were responsible for the double bomb blast.

Today as you approach the two churches there are stark, visible reminders of the tragedy – posters of victims are displayed outside both churches and the walls are covered with bullet holes.  Nonetheless, the community is healing and moving forward.

The Peace Committee, set up in 2013, is comprised of local men and women and divided into sub committees that address issues in the community. One such committee engages with local youths to encourage unity, awareness and cooperation though arranging seminars run by liberal Muslims, emphasising that Pakistan belongs to all Pakistanis. Other programs include sporting activities such as inter-faith cricket matches between Christians and Muslims, and helping bomb victims find new employment.  Another committee is working with the media to change the negative bias surrounding the events in Youhanabad.

 We have taken it all

The Christian community in Pakistan, among other religious minorities, continues to suffer widespread violence and discrimination. There have been numerous attacks on Christians from the burning of Joseph Colony to the tragic killing of Shama Bibi and Shehzad Masih, the couple burnt alive in a brick kiln. The environment is tense. Christians are affected by misused blasphemy laws which are disproportionately used to settle personal scores or in business rivalry. Christian girls are abducted, forced to marry Muslim men and convert against their will. The climate is troubled further by heightened terrorist and extremist threats and security issues, and the lack of resolve by both politicians and police to adequately protect Christians continues to persist.

We have taken everything that was thrown against us. You can pick up the history of this country, you will never find that the Christians have instigated violence or something so brutal at such a large scale.’

This is our land and this is our spirit

In the past year the community in Youhanabad has organised over 15 youth seminars that teach young people life skills, give them an understanding of their rights and instil courage. A recent training programme including Christian activists from Youhanabad has equipped participants with the techniques of social media activism, on digital rights, how to protest peacefully and on engaging with law enforcement agencies.

Despite doubts about the commitment of local Christian politicians, the community is determined to make their own success stories. Local residents told me of their patriotism and their interest in self-development. There is a hunger for education and to educate and counsel people.

‘We want to arrange seminars where you can educate us and we will make the change, change is already here… we are working and on the way change will grow.’

As the city prepares to commemorate those who died preparations are underway for church services and candle lit vigils in the streets of Youhanabad to mourn, to remember and to pray such tragedy never happens again.

By CSW’s Pakistan Desk Officer