Pakistan's minorities fail to see
progress By Isolda Agazzi
GENEVA - Since the restoration of
democracy in 2008, Pakistan has undertaken steps
to uphold human rights, but the situation of
minorities has only worsened, according to a group
of non-government organizations. Dalits - formerly
referred to as "untouchables" are in the worst
state, facing both religious and social
discrimination, they say.
government claims otherwise. "2008-2012 has been
the most active period of legislation-making on
human rights in the 65 years of the history of
Pakistan," Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan minister
for foreign affairs told the Universal Periodic
Review in Geneva this week. After a first
assessment in 2008, Pakistan was scrutinized again
by the peer review mechanism of the Human Rights
Council that all UN member states undergo every
A new law was enacted in May
2012 to create a national
on human rights, one member of which will be from
the minorities. Pakistan has also ratified the
International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICPR) and the Convention against Torture
and it is now focusing on implementing them at the
national level, the minister said.
constitution is crystal clear on the rights of
minorities to freely profess their religion and
visit their places of worship," the minister said.
"They are an integral part of the Pakistani
society and all citizens are guaranteed equal
rights and status, irrespective of religion or
Independent groups cast their
doubts. "Since the last review there has been some
progress, but it is clearly not enough in terms of
minority rights," Shobha Das, director of
programmes at Minority Rights Group International
stressed in an interview with IPS.
"Pakistan has ratified ICCPR, but its
implementation is very slow. It has a quota system
in politics where 4% of the seats in the upper
house are reserved for non-Muslims - which
reflects their percentage in the population. But
in the lower house, the national assembly, only 10
seats out of 342 are reserved for non-Muslims.
Non-Muslims are not safe in Pakistan, particularly
those who speak out for their rights. We are very
concerned about religious freedom."
Minority Rights Group International is
particularly worried about direct, physical
attacks on members of the minorities, and the
inability, or unwillingness, of a "weak state" to
protect them. It is also concerned over what it
calls the institutionalized erosion of religious
freedom - like having to declare one's religion
when applying for identity papers.
if religious minorities are not directly affected
by violence, there is a pervasive atmosphere of
fear because the state does not provide adequate
response," Shobba Das said. "These people feel
insecure. They feel Pakistani, but the message
they get is that they are not."
concerned also over the blasphemy law, which they
say constitutes a fundamental erosion of human
rights. Instituted in the 1860s by the British to
protect all religions against blasphemy, it has
been amended so often that today it protects Islam
and not other religions. The law is often misused
to settle personal disputes with members of
Zulfiqar Shah from
the Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network told IPS
that members of supposedly "lower" castes, the
Dalits, suffer acutely in Pakistan. "Dalits are
discriminated against as much as in India and, in
addition, they have the double disadvantage of
being non-Muslim. Currently, there is no law
In 1947, at the
time of the partition of India when Pakistan was
created, about 24% to 27% of the population in the
area that is present day Pakistan was of the
minorities. The majority of Hindus migrated to
India, others converted to Islam. Today the
minority population in Pakistan is only 4%, which
is 7.2 million people. Most members of the
minorities who are still in Pakistan belong to
Dalit groups. Their numbers are 330,000 according
to the 1998 census, but minority groups say the
real number is between two and four million.
Getting the real figures is politically
fraught. But it is also difficult since most
Dalits live in rural areas, and with very poor
access to health, education and employment. They
are confined to jobs like agricultural work in
bondage labor. "Forced labour goes on from
generation to generation because these landless
peasants cannot pay off their debts," Shah said.
Currently, there is only one Dalit in
Parliament and not a single one in a provincial
assembly. "The government should set up a
commission to implement affirmative action.
Discrimination is built in Hinduism, not in Islam.
Theoretically Dalits should have a better position
in Pakistan than in India, but unfortunately it is
even worse. India, at least, guarantees legal
protection and affirmative action," Shah said.
One of the most pressing issues is the
kidnapping of young girls who are forcibly
converted to Islam. In March this year, Rinkal
Kumari, a 19-year-old Hindu girl, was kidnapped
and forcibly converted. A few months later, 350
people from the upper Sindh left for India.
"Pakistan should set up a faith conversion
commission with members from all religions.
Whoever wants to convert should approach this
commission first," Shah said.
participating in the interactive dialogue with
Pakistan asked the government to adopt steps to
amend the law on blasphemy and to uphold the
rights of religious minorities. They asked it to
investigate attacks against religious minorities
and to hold those responsible for those acts