Tribute to Asma Jahangir highlights challenges for Human Rights Defenders in South Asia
On 17 August 2018, activists and civil society members from across South Asia met in Colombo to pay tribute the legacy of Pakistani and lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir who passed away in February this year. The event provided an opportunity to reflect on contemporary and future challenges for HRDs in the South Asian region.
In Afghanistan, indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets by militant groups has escalated in recent times, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries. Militant groups such as the Taliban and ISIL have abandoned conventional rules of engagement, launching attacks on civilian infrastructure not only in regional Afghanistan but also in capital Kabul.
In Bangladesh, suppression of freedom of speech continues to be an issue, as highlighted by the murder of blogger Shahzahan Bachchu, the attack on writer Mehedi Hasan, and the arrest of photojournalist Shahidul Alam. This suppression is supplemented by state surveillance, including the monitoring and censoring of internet activities. Concerned observers have termed the actions of the state organs as a severe blow to people’s freedom of expression.
In India, HRDs face a range of bureaucratic and legal challenges across the country, particularly in conflict-affected regions such as Manipur and Kashmir. Indian HRDs face attacks from state actors (such as police, military and the courts) as well as non-state actors (such as militant groups and private companies). These attacks manifest in killings, assault, arbitrary detention, threats and judicial harassment. This year has also seen a string of high profile cases of rape and violence against women.
In Maldives, a state of emergency declared by President Abdulla Yameen earlier this year, marked a new wave of suppression of dissent and a crackdown on political freedoms. Authoritarian rule has been consolidated via the arrest and detention of several opposition members as well as members of the Supreme Court. Maldivian HRDs face severe restriction, threats and harassment. Religious extremism also continues to be a concern, with fundamentalist groups and individuals using the internet to threaten activists.
In Nepal, an overall improvement in the human rights situation has been observed since the cessation of the civil war. However, HRDs continue to face threats, harassment, and the violent dispersal of peaceful protests by police and security forces. There has also been continued delays in the deliverance of justice and reparations for crimes committed during the civil war.
In Pakistan, Asma Jahangir’s country of origin, the situation for HRDs continues to be one of the most challenging in South Asia. Risks faced include killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, abduction and enforced disappearance, surveillance, threats, and judicial harassment. Challenges are particularly high in conflict-affected areas such as Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where HRDs find themselves caught between security agencies, religious groups, militants and armed gangs. Impunity has allowed these challenges to fester, forcing NGOs to close offices in areas like Balochistan. Recent elections were marred by allegations of rigging and manipulation by vested interests, thereby constituted set back in the democratisation process.
In Sri Lanka, despite a change of government in 2015, a range of social and political issues continue to fester. In the war-affected Northern and Eastern Provinces, vast areas of land continue to be occupied by the Sri Lankan military, and activists agitating for the return of these lands face surveillance, threats and harassment. Further, families of the disappeared continue to demand answers as to the whereabouts of their loved-ones, many of whom were forcibly disappeared during and towards the end of the civil war.
Participants resolved to defend human rights with courage, integrity and resist all forms of suppression – hallmarks of Asma Jahangir’s lifelong commitment to human rights. As pointed out by keynote speaker Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, “The world is a less safe place without Asma and we owe it to her to continue our fight for what is right and just in all our societies.”
Other speakers at the event included SAHR Chairperson Sultana Kamal, and former SAHR Bureau Members Dr. Nimalka Fernando and Mr. I. A. Rehman, and Asma Jahangir’s daughter Munizae Jahangir.