Whenever activists get together to take stock of the situation of human rights in South Asia, they find little cheer other than in their own struggle. A two-day conference in the Indian capital last week did not prove to be an exception.
The devastation caused in Pakistan by floods weighed heavily on the minds of delegates coming from all attending Saarc states. This offered a measure of mutual understanding that human rights campaigners in the region have succeeded in developing despite the efforts of slow-moving bureaucrats in nearly all parts of South Asia to reduce the space for civil society organisations as much as possible.
However, expression of sympathy and solidarity with the flood-affected masses was accompanied by serious concerns about the inability of the international community, especially its South Asian component, to extend adequate succour to Pakistanis faced with an unprecedented disaster. A particularly sore point was the failure of Saarc to operationalise, or even to recall, the protocol on regional disaster management. It was not possible to understand why no member state could invoke the regional accord.
Allegations were made, with considerable vigour, that Pakistan had not devised a clear policy for accepting aid in kind from civil society organisations and elements (such as doctors, pharmaceutical dealers and farmers) in the neighbouring countries. This is something the Pakistan establishment must immediately address and remove any obstacles, real or imagined, to the flow of people-to-people aid supplies from across South Asia, including India. For one does not wish to believe any state authority will be guided by confrontationists to the extent of spurning aid offers from neighbours. Cross-border cooperation in humanitarian endeavours will surely strengthen the concept of South Asian identity and a shared destiny, a fact that was amply confirmed when Edhi and some other Pakistanis went to the Indian state of Gujarat a few years ago to provide relief to earthquake victims.
It was impossible for even the most cautious human rights activists from the region to ignore the wave of killings in the Kashmir Valley and Sri Lanka’s march towards authoritarianism, the large number of extra-legal killings there and the unbearable strain on the media. But the conference was perhaps held back by the danger of its intervention causing more harm than good, particularly in view of the highly charged climate in which these issues were being approached by the parties concerned. They therefore contented themselves with regretting the loss of life in Kashmir and extra-democratic trends in Sri Lanka and called for sincere efforts to avoid derogation of human rights in any form and in any situation.
On Afghanistan, however, the discussion was considerably frank and candid. There was a fair measure of accord on the urgency of allowing the Afghan people much greater say in shaping their destiny than they have apparently been granted so far. It was strongly argued that some of the external actors strutting across the ravaged Afghan landscape were part of the problem and not its solution. The common view was that instead of competing for an exclusive right to courting Afghanistan, India and Pakistan should respect each other’s interests in the area and jointly lead a South Asian initiative to secure peace, justice and democracy in the war-torn land.
The release and repatriation of about 450 Indian fishermen that had been held in Pakistan was the only matter that brought some comfort to the delegates. The initiative taken by civil society organisations was lauded and the prompt and sympathetic intervention by the apex courts of both Pakistan and India was considered a good augury for the resolution of matters related to the imprisonment of a Saarc country’s nationals in another country in the region. Essentially the issue concerned Pakistani and Indian prisoners in each other’s jails, a stigma the two governments have been extraordinarily tardy in erasing.
The conference therefore made an emphatic demand for a South Asian convention/protocol to address the issue of prisoners, including such matters as their trial in an alien land, consular access, relief for those who suffer heavily for unintended violation of cross-border traffic rules, and repatriation of prisoners to their home countries immediately after the completion of their sentences and even before that.
The central issue the conference tried to tackle was terrorism. There was complete unanimity among the participants that terrorism presented the gravest threat to the stability, integrity and representative rule of all South Asian countries, including any faction or group that expected to benefit from any brand of terrorism. The participants agreed that instead of allowing themselves to be divided by terrorism, the South Asian states should forge a united front against the menace.
At the same time the conference strongly criticised the abuse of due process and basic rights through counter-terrorism measures. The specific matters that came under attack were extra-legal killings, unlawful detention, interference with judicial processes, an increasing premium on impunity and involuntary disappearances. The conference called upon all South Asian states to ratify and implement the UN Convention on Involuntary Disappearances and work out a strategy to jointly deal with both terrorism and counter-terrorism activities in a rational manner and with due respect for all citizens’ basic entitlements.
The strains on democratic norms in the various parts of South Asia generated a lively debate. In the end an agreement was reached on the need to regenerate healthy and transparent politics across South Asia. It was necessary for the people, especially the youth, to end their indifference or apathy to politics and free their political parties and state institutions from the stranglehold of inefficient, corrupt and self-serving cliques.
The human rights activists who tried to examine the afflictions causing distress and worse to their societies had no illusions about their importance or strength. They were, however, fortified by the belief that the voice of those who shared the hard-pressed communities’ aspirations and anxieties had a better claim to public space in the media and elsewhere than the antics and harangues of spurious politicos that no person sound of head and heart could own.