The Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT), a UK based NGO working on gender equality and human rights, has recently been focussed on the disturbing case of Asia Bibi – a young Pakistani Christian mother who was accused of falling foul of the blasphemy laws by drinking from a well reserved for Muslims only. Bibi found herself facing a death sentence and spent 8 years in jail. It was only after condemnation from the international community that Bibi was finally released by the Supreme Court. On 8th May, Bibi and her husband were flown out of Pakistan to Canada to escape the Islamic fundamentalists who continue the call for her execution.
In March 2019, a rally took place outside the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to raise awareness of the plight of Asia Bibi and Christians in Pakistan. Following the event, WESTT approached Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Marijana Petir who also attended the protest, to call on other MEPs to write to the Prime Minister of Pakistan and insist that the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan is stopped, in accordance with the Freedom of Religion Covenant already signed and ratified by Pakistan in 2010.
Pakistan ratified the Covenant and undertook, in both international law and treaties, to impart legal justice for the values and rights incorporated therein and protect its people by national legislation against cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment by State agencies. By signing, Pakistan recognised that “… the Covenant prohibits slavery, guarantees the right to a fair trial and protects the persons against arbitrary arrest or detention. It recognises freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion”.
On 30 April, Petir and fifty other MEPs co-signed a letter to Mr Imran Khan, Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, setting out that unless the violations of the Covenant and the persecution of religious minorities is stopped immediately, the co-signatories would call on the European Commission to cease all subsidies until assurances could be given that no further violations would be committed.
WESTT additionally received a letter from the human rights committee of the European Parliament (DROI) stating that “The European Parliament has consistently stressed the importance of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and specifically voiced concerns regarding the blasphemy legislation in Pakistan in a number of resolutions adopted since 2014. Members have placed much emphasis on the fact that blasphemy laws can affect people of all faiths in the country and that such laws have been increasingly used to target vulnerable minority groups, including Ahmadis and Christians. This point is all the more important, given the fact that Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion and minority rights.”
The European Parliament has recently adopted a resolution on the EU Guidelines for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU where it called on the Pakistani authorities to secure the safety of Asia Bibi and her family. The resolution also reflected on the mandate of the European Commission Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion, who visited Pakistan in 2018. Generally, the resolution expressed deep concern that “there has been a dramatic rise in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief worldwide and the persecution of believers and non-believers in recent years” – something that became very evident after the Easter attacks against Christians in Sri Lanka.
The European Parliament Human Rights Committee highlighted that “The instrumentalisation of religious issues for political ends is a trend of great concern for Parliament, as are all acts of harassment or social pressures against any individual or group of people on the grounds of thought, conscience, religion or belief. As a matter of principle and policy, Parliament has always condemned all acts of violence against religious communities, as well as all forms of discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. It will remain committed to addressing all human rights violations and will use every suitable opportunity to raise these issues with all relevant counterparts.”
With the persecution of religious minorities in China, particularly the Uyghurs, Falun Gong and Tibetans, but also more recently Christians; the fleeing Muslim refugees in Myanmar; the murder of more than 250 Christians in Sri Lanka; and the continued violation of international Covenants Pakistan where Ahmadi’s, Sufi’s, Hindu’s, Sikhs and Christians, face multiple forms of discrimination, it would appear that the European Union, as the beacon for human rights, will need to move beyond resolutions to be effective. As the letter of the European parliament eluded, suspension of trade benefits, subsidies and even sanctions are more likely to be on the cards in the future.