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Interview with Asma Jahangir

"Who dares?", Pakistan's Independence day wallpaper, Tribute to Pakistan's Armed Forces.  (Ĵǡƕǻǹžəβ/Flickr)

"Who dares?", Pakistan's Independence day wallpaper, Tribute to Pakistan's Armed Forces. (Ĵǡƕǻǹžəβ/Flickr)

Asma Jahangir is a leading human rights advocate in Pakistan. A prominent lawyer, she has worked both in Pakistan and abroad to prevent the exploitation of religious minorities, women, and children. She is currently UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief of the Commission on Human Rights. She assumed this position after being UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions.

This interview with Asia Society was conducted while Ms Jahangir was in New York for the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders presented at the Asia Society.

You have recently been appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. What does this position entail, and how does it compare with your work as UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions?

My work as UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief entails monitoring the situation worldwide. I have to monitor the growing trends, or patterns, of violations, and point out the countries or regions where intolerance is increasing. Basically my work is regulated by the 1981 Declaration on Religious Intolerance. My previous mandate as UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions was a very hard mandate in the sense that it was concerning people's lives but this one is intellectually more challenging and more complex. The previous one was more or less black or white. So I think they are both very different and very difficult in their own way. But this certainly is more complex.

You have said in another interview you gave in 2002 that more than ever before, the UN "is an organization that is important at this juncture, because there is a lot of polarization in the world. And the United Nations is an organizational body where people, through their governments, come together." Do you believe that the UN, given its relative impotence - not to mention its hierarchical and exclusive decision-making processes - can bring countries and peoples together in a substantive way?

Well, I think the United Nations has to fulfill that role, yes. It was made for this purpose, and it is a world forum, an unparalleled world forum. It is true that it lacks, particularly, I would say, capacity, organization, and the zeal that it had some years ago. But that has to be brought back, and that is why we keep hearing of UN reforms. I hope these reforms bring a positive impetus to the United Nations, rather than the United Nations becoming more subservient to many countries that have power and muscle.

You have been involved in track two diplomacy initiatives between India and Pakistan which involve meetings between members of civil society in both countries. You have also spoken elsewhere of the absence of an "institutional way of sharing culture" between the countries of South Asia. What do you think the prospects are for more exchange, dialogue and cooperation across South Asia?

I think there are many prospects. To begin with, I think, we need to have cultural centers across South Asia as many of us have often recommended. We need to have cultural centers of each other's countries, and we don't have that. We don't even know each other's languages. We are more keen to learn other foreign languages rather than trying to learn South Asian languages. We have seen how people themselves, despite governments, have been able to exchange and cooperate at cultural level: songs and theater, techniques of theater, have been exchanged, but it goes beyond that. There is, for example, very unique embroidery in many parts of South Asia which people could share; and it is not only beautiful, but it can also be good for making money for women and other groups. It is also another way that the people of South Asia can be brought together. And there are numerous such examples.