The complex and challenging circumstances in which human rights defenders operate on a daily basis were at the heart of Hina Jilani and Valerie Amos’ conversation at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London on 16 March.
Hina Jilani, the first UN Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders and a Pakistani activist and lawyer, explained how the work of human rights defenders is essential to implement and protect human rights, as well as to alleviate poverty, provide humanitarian assistance and advance development practices. She acknowledged the potential risk faced by human rights defenders due to nature of their work, including due to the absence of any recognition of the right and obligation to protect them.
"Resilience creates results."
However, Ms Jilani highlighted “their capacity to be outraged when there is injustice, discrimination and violence” and how such “resilience creates results” that “give the energy and the will to go forward”.
Drawing her attention to the role of the State, Ms Jilani criticised its tendency to “hide behind the lack of resource” when justifying shortcomings on its obligations on economic, social and cultural rights. Arguing that “availability of resources is not the problem, but rather their allocation,” she regretted the world's fast pace of militarisation and focus on raising defence expenditure at the expense of their population’s needs - and those of people on the move. “All you can hear is about the security threats that refugees pose” lamented Ms Jilani before highlighting that “little attention is given to the fact that under the international law these people are not illegal but they have certain rights.”
“I keep hearing ‘global refugee crisis’ but the crisis is not of the world but of the refugees and poor people who have now been vilified. The challenge is of the world.”
“Believe in the values of human rights”
Responding to a question on what individuals can do to protect and promote human rights, particularly in the face of State inaction, Hina Jilani implored the audience to “believe in the values of human rights themselves”. She rejected leaders who espouse “so-called Asian values” as a cover for defending human rights abuses, and strongly defended the universality of human rights.
“There is no single principle of human rights that I don't cherish as a Pakistani coming from the South Asian region.”
“There is no single principle of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human rights or in any other Human Rights instrument that I don't cherish as a Pakistani coming from the South Asian region.”
She added that “saying these are western values is an insult to people in my region who have fought for freedom and against discrimination, fought for states to have a better government, justice and fairness”.
Human rights values as “the standards to which everyone must strive”
Reflecting on a world where politicians claim electoral successes on the basis of discriminatory public positions, Hina Jilani warned against complacency and emphasised the importance of promoting human rights values as “the standards to which everyone must strive.” She rejected torture as “having no value in counterterrorism and crime”, but also regretted the fact that
“a large part of the population has lost its ability to analyse and are now blindly influenced by the state’s rhetoric and the fear that has been spread in the name of rising crime and terrorism.”
"Religion has been misused as a weapon to create fear."
She also warned of the rise of discrimination and the decline of human rights, pointedly noting that such declines will not be “to the disadvantage of the elite” but always “the poor, marginalised and vulnerable” who will suffer. Ms Jilani added that “religion has been misused as a weapon to create fear, to silence political dissent,” instead calling for “all religions in the world [to] take us towards a better human conduct, more respect for others, more humanity rather than losing humanity.”
“If you are a human rights defender you always have to try and be on the lookout to see what has happened and what you have achieved […]
Reflecting on her personal experiences and how her father’s activism and involvement in challenging Pakistan’s military and religious authorities helped her to become the woman and activist that she is today, she insisted that despite the difficulties “it is never a failure.” She added that when Pakistan’s women's movement was launched against discriminatory laws in the 1980s, she stood on the street together with many other women even if some people - including her family - did not believe that any change could occur.
"Remember that the one step forward that you took gave you the energy and the will to go on with the struggle.”
“That was not true. In 1998 Pakistan elected its first woman prime minister and every political party in the 1998 elections had a woman manifesto in their programme.[…]
It is true that when we have gone one step further they go two steps backwards, but remember that the one step forward that you took gave you the energy and the will to go on with the struggle”, Ms Jilani added.
Desmond Tutu and Hina Jilani at a public debate in South Africa in 2013.
Finally, in response to Valerie Amos’ closing question of whether she is an optimist, she answered “I'm not pessimistic. As [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu said, we are all prisoners of hope and this is a prison I don't want to leave.”