Govt urged to tackle challenges of extremism, intolerance

NCHR writes to PM, suggesting ways to protect minorities

ISLAMABAD: The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) on Sunday wrote an open letter to the caretaker prime minister, Anwaarul Haq Kakar, which contained recommendations for protection of minorities and urged the government to tackle long-term challenges arising from extremism and intolerance in the society.

Following the rampage and burning of churches and homes in Jaranwala, Faisalabad, on August 16, a team led by the NCHR chairperson visited the area to meet with the district administration, religious leaders and families affected by the terrible attacks.

The team was informed that a mob of approximately 1,200 people, majority of them youth, attacked and destroyed 17 churches and approximately 80 houses, of which 40 were completely gutted and the remaining badly vandalised.

A copy of the letter available with Dawn said the level of devastation in Jaranwala was enormous. Besides the economic costs that would arise in repair and rehabilitation as well as the psychological consequences to an already weak and discriminated community would have long-term impacts on the feeling of helplessness felt by our Christian brethren.

Condemning the violence, the NCHR said mob riots and vigilante actions had grown exponentially over the last few years while incidents of desecration of places of worship, graveyards and open ferocity against members of vulnerable groups had become commonplace – often with impunity.

“State authorities must ensure due process of law and speedy convictions to affirm legal deterrence provided in domestic law to all and every citizen of the country regardless of religion. Despite comprehensive legal and institutional framework for promotion and protection of human rights, such acts of violence against religious minorities pose serious questions regarding implementation and role of duty bearers,” said NCHR chairperson Rabiya Javeri Agha said.

Analysis of criminal case-files of minority’s parties demonstrated numerous problems plaguing police investigations, delays, arrests without probable cause, proceedings in flimsy cases etc. Additionally, a comprehensive assessment of attitudes of administrative and justice sectors revealed a lack of knowledge of specific laws relating to religious minority communities.

The commission acknowledged action by the Faisalabad commissioner, which averted loss of life and appreciated high-level public condemnation of the incident as well as the commitment of the Punjab government to repair and compensate the affected.

However, it added that it was now time to look at long-term investment in the protection and uplift of Pakistan’s minority communities.

It was of concern to the NCHR that the landmark judgement on minority rights byTassaduq Hussain Jillanifollowing the Peshawar church bomb blast in 2013 had still not been fully implemented by the government. This included putting into place safeguards for the protection of places of worship of minority groups and setting up special police forces for their safety.

The letter said Faisalabad had historically been an area of acrimony and disputes among religious groups.

“It is of concern to the NCHR that no long-term programme has been developed to de-radicalise the youth of the area and to inculcate a culture of religious tolerance. Furthermore, notified peace committees and local police of the area lack the strength, efficacy and courage that is needed in tense situations such as that of August 16,” the letter said, adding that additionally, in the wake of the attack, a surge of approximately one million social media posts targeted minority community with hate and inflammatory content.

The NCHR further said 60pc of bonded labour in Punjab comprised Christian workers and that 80pc non-Muslims were employed in low paid and sanitation work. Systemic discrimination against religious minorities was embedded in the socio-political landscape of Pakistan.

According to the commission, this discrimination started from childhood, continuing into adulthood as minority members struggled to join the workforce, participate in politics, claim basic rights of citizenship and practice their faiths without fear or intimidation.

In view of the above, the National Commission on Human Rights recommended measures to be taken by the government to address long-term challenges arising from extremism and intolerance in society especially against those actions that violated Article 20 of the Constitution – ‘Freedom to Profess Religion and Manage Religious Institutions’.

The NCHR suggested that government machinery be deployed to speedily investigate the incident using latest technology; geo-fencing and CCTV cameras (similar to that used in the May 9 investigation) to gather evidence for prosecution. It said the state, as a party to the prosecution, assist the courts for early dispensation of justice and follow-up on the later stages of appeal till convictions. It also said the government might consider setting up an independent tribunal or JIT to inquire into the incident.

It was also important to establish systems of accountability to facilitate and improve investigation, the commission said, adding that this might be achieved either through district criminal justice coordination committees formed under the Police Act for instance, or a statutory committee that specifically monitored cases of religious minority communities.

The NCHR said the provincial government should immediately fulfill its promise to compensate affected Christian families and start early rebuilding of damaged properties, especially churches. It also called for initiating a national programme to curb growing extremism and the de-radicalisation of youth, starting with Faisalabad Division and implement legislations and policies that addressed dangerous speech and online harassment.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2023

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