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Democracy and Human Rights in Post-Coup Pakistan

Asma Jahangir (

Asma Jahangir (

Asma Jahangir
UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions

New York, May 30, 2000

My name is Vishakha Desai and I'm the Senior Vice-President of the Asia Society and Director of the Cultural Programs and its galleries. It's a great honor for me to welcome our Speaker, Asma Jahangir, tonight. I know many of you know her. I actually think about the last time that she was here at the Asia Society, which was in our building that's being renovated. So one of the reasons why all of you are here is because, as you know, we are renovating that building. Some of you have asked me, and I should tell you that it is on schedule. It will open in the Fall of September, 2001. We hope that Ms. Jahangir will be there again, when we go back.

Last time when she was here, it was on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, when we organized a series called "Empowered Women of South Asia." I have to say that as a public speaker, it's not very often that you see that after somebody speaks there is a standing ovation. This was the case with Asma Jahangir when she gave that lecture last time in 1997. As you know, she's an internationally renowned human rights figure, and in particular, for women's rights. She's been an activist for a very long time. Asma Jahangir and her sister, Hina Jillani, founded the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, and the first all-women's law practice in the country. Together, they lead efforts on children's rights and prisoners' rights, on women's rights, and on judicial and constitutional reform.

Helvetica">As you also know, she has been an outspoken critic and speaker on the issue of honor killings. I know that a number of you have heard about this, because of the recent coverage about this issue in The New York Times. It's also very important that she has been speaking for giving women more choice in choosing their husbands. In 1998, Asma Jahangir was appointed by the United Nations to be the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. In that role, she is mandated to investigate all actual or threatened killings or those that are tolerated by government officials.


You're also all aware that on 12 October 1999, the elected government of Nawaz Sharif was deposed. A new military government, headed by General Musharraf, was put into place. The General suspended the Constitution, abolished the National Assembly and all provincial legislatures. He also announced the formation of a six-member National Security Council, to give guidance to the Cabinet of Ministers. He also banned the Supreme Court from challenging his authority. Yet, it is very important that we recognize that his agenda is noteworthy and very clear. He wants to weed out corruption. But he does want to and attempts to weed out corruption, get the economy back on track, and in order, and to prosecute tax-evaders, among other things. And now, Pakistan's Government has announced its intention to hold democratic elections within the next three years. The Government has also recently inaugurated the Convention on Human Rights and Human Dignity; but at a social level, and at a societal level, achieving democracy and upholding human rights will require a lot, not just at the Government end, but also from the citizens.

Tonight, I think we are very privileged to have the opportunity to hear Asma Jahangir give a citizen's view of democracy and human rights in post-coup Pakistan, and to provide some insights and thoughts on deepening of democracy and human rights in Pakistan. This evening's lecture and the discussion are part of Asia Society's new and very exciting initiative called the Asian Social Issues Program. This new initiative, and I should say personally, it's probably one of the most important things that the institution has embarked on in recent years. This initiative is committed to looking at how individuals and communities in Asia's poor and poorest economies and among the most disadvantaged groups in the region respond to poverty, violation of human rights, environmental degradation, and migration flows. As you know, the institution has been known for its arts and cultural programs, for its policy programs, for its business programs. This is a venture that we have only done occasionally, but we really intend to keep that as a very important and a central part of the institution's mission. So through a series of creative public education programs, the institution will show-case work of Asian leaders of non-governmental organizations, and convey how Asia's efforts to solve its social problems offer Americans new perspectives on social issues in the United States as well.

Please join me in welcoming Asma Jahangir.

Asma Jahangir: Well, thank you very much, Ms. Desai. I am very pleased to be here. Not only because it's Asia Society, which does bring around many speakers who have varied points of views. But I think that amongst the crowd, I also see people who have different points of view and are eager to learn what is happening in Pakistan, post-coup.

I wrestled with myself this evening, thinking of how I'm going to start my talk. I have never had this difficulty earlier. Because on the one hand, it is rather a sober moment in any country's history when a military comes back after transition to democracy. On the other hand, there has been a failing of the leaders of political parties to push forward the process of democracy. Nevertheless, the answers never do lie in a military intervention. So I thought that I would start my talk by simply reading out to you extracts from the four generals who have stepped into Pakistan's history.

The first one, General Ayub Khan, I will only read out portions of. When he came into power, this was his first speech. Amongst other things, he said, "This is a drastic and extreme step. When with great reluctance, but with the fullest conviction that there was no alternative to it except the disintegration and complete ruination of the country. History would never have forgiven us if the present chaotic conditions were allowed to go on any further. Let me announce in no uncertain terms that our ultimate aim is to restore democracy. But of the type that people can understand and work. When the time comes, your opinion will be freely asked. But when that will be, events alone can tell." He concluded by saying a word for the "disruptionists, political opportunists, smugglers, black marketeers, and others [...]. The soldiers and the people are sick of the sight of you, so it will be good for your health to turn a new leaf and begin to behave. Otherwise, retribution will be swift and sure."

After him came General Yahya Khan. He said, "Fellow countrymen, I wish to make it absolutely clear to you that I have no ambition other than the creation of conditions conducive to the establishment of a constitutional government. The Armed Forces belong to the people. They have no political ambitions, and will not prop up any individual or party. At the same time, I wish to make it equally clear that we have every intention of completing the mission that we've embarked upon to the nation's satisfaction."

"We are passing through the most fateful period of our history. The recent events have dealt a serious blow to our national prestige and progress. The Martial Law Administration cannot and will not tolerate agitational and destructive activities of any kind."

The third one was General Zia-ul-Haq. He said, "The reactions to this takeover have so far been very encouraging. A stream of congratulatory messages have been pouring in from different quarters. I am grateful for this to my nation, as well as to momin [pure Muslim] Armed Forces of Pakistan. The Army takeover is never a pleasant act because the Armed Forces of Pakistan only want that the administration of the country should remain in the hands of the representatives of the people, who are its real masters. The people exercise this right through their elected representatives, who are chosen in every democratic country, through periodic elections. But I genuinely feel that the survival of this country lies in democracy and democracy alone. I want to make it absolutely clear that neither I have any political ambition, nor does the Army want to be detracted from its profession of soldiering. I was obliged to step in, to fill in the vacuum created by the political leaders. I have accepted this challenge as a true soldier of Islam. My sole aim is to organize free and fair elections, which would be held in October of this year. I give solemn assurance that I will not deviate from this schedule."