The deadly assault on central Imambargah in Shikarpur on January 30, allegedly by the TTP splinter Sunni militant group Jundullah, which killed more than 60 Shia Muslims and left as many severely injured, is not the first of its kind on the Shia population of Pakistan. It is a continuation of hundreds or perhaps thousands of large and small unstoppable and seemingly inevitable attacks, for last couple decades now, on the Shia community in the country. The recent blast and the havoc and destruction it wrought on the people of this community clearly shows that the Pakistani polity has expressly failed so far in its responsibility to protect its civilian population in general and religious minorities in particular.
According to previous studies by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P), Pakistan’s religious minorities, particularly the Shias, are at risk of potential mass atrocity crimes due to sectarian attacks by outlawed Sunni militant groups like the TTP, Sipah-e-Sahaba aka Ahle-Sunat-Wal-Jamat, and Lashkar-e-Jangvi in the country. Although the GCR2P has been a bit light-handed and generous in its analysis and scrutiny, I strongly believe that Pakistan certainly comes in the loop of countries, not implying the ilk of Libya or Syria, who have failed so far in their primary responsibility to protect their populations from genocide and mass atrocity crimes.
Defining the responsibility to protect
The responsibility to protect, often termed R2P, principle grew out of the failures of states to protect their populations and the inaction of international community in the face of tragedies of mass atrocities during the 1990s. After the mass atrocity crimes in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the then Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan recalled in his 2000 Millennium Report, "If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” Acting on his call, subsequently, in 2001, an independent Canadian-led International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), tasked with devising an alternative concept and strategy for preventing conscience-shocking crimes against humanity, came up with the idea of R2P which was later unanimously endorsed by the General Assembly in 2005. Broadly speaking, R2P is based on three large pillars: Firstly, building up on the idea also expounded in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, it is every state’s responsibility to protect their populations from four crimes i.e. genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Secondly, other states should assist a failing state in its responsibility to prevent or halt mass atrocity crimes. Thirdly, if a state is manifestly unable or unwilling to do so, it becomes the responsibility of international community to prevent a conflict through its full and active engagement, including the use of military force. The cousin concept of humanitarian intervention, R2P is a more complex, multidimensional, and comprehensive principle, which offers an exhaustive toolkit of diplomatic and non-military measures for halting crimes against humanity, with, of course, the use of force as a last resort.
How Pakistan has failed in protecting its citizens
I am not, by any means, implying an intervention of any kind in Pakistan’s case, which may be precipitated if it does not rise up to the protection of its religious minorities, as some international human rights organizations have already raised their concerns about Pakistan’s failure in this regard.
Pakistan, since its birth, has not been generally conducive to religious minorities. The violent Lahore riots of 1953 against Ahmedis claimed the lives of hundreds of members of their community. That was the start, which has expanded to other sects over time, and there does not seem an end of hate against and slaughter of religious minorities in sight yet. The Ahmedis were then constitutionally declared non-Muslims in 1974 under Bhutto regime due to pressure from religious right wing, and have since been perpetrated violence against.
Similarly, 50 families, all from Balochistan, of Parsis have left the country from fear of persecution and kidnapping for ransom of high profile members of their community. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) report confirms this fact. Hindu women in interior Sind have been compelled on forced marriages and unwilling acceptance of Islam. Similarly, pagan communities in the Kalasha Valley and adjoining areas have also been threatened with violence. In the same vein, Christian community has been harassed, particularly over the last decade, through black (blasphemy) laws where justice is dispensed in the public court run by mindless, violent, and extremely reactionary mob. Attacks have also been perpetrated on most of the important Sufi shrines of the country.
The worst of all, the Shia minority group, which makes about 15-20% of Pakistan’s total population, is the main victim of sectarian violence in the country. Among Shias, particularly, the Hazara Shia community, comprising about 500,000 members in Quetta, has suffered the brunt of sectarian attacks chiefly because they are an easy prey due to their Mongolian facial features to whom their descent is traced. Moreover, Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Chilas, Para Chinar, and Gilgit have also remained the hotspots of anti-Shia sectarian violence.
Since 1980s when Zia let the genie of religious extremism and sectarianism out of the bottle, according to the HRCP, over 4000 Shias have been killed in Pakistan. Patterns of sectarian violence against religious minorities over the last decade show that the perpetrators have mainly targeted churches, Shia Imambargahs and mosques that belong to the Ahmedi community. Some other popular patterns of sectarian violence have been the targeted killing of professionals, shopkeepers, businessmen, zairin (Shia pilgrims) traveling to Iran and Iraq, and religious leaders of the Shia community. The Shias have also been at times reactive but largely peaceful.
Similarly, attacks have also been directed at the Hazara Shia students, especially in Quetta. The Hazara Shia Students aboard buses in the city have been targeted. Among many, one such horrible attack was at the bus of Sardar Bahadur Khan University in Quetta in which more than 30 undergrad and grad female students were killed. Fortunately, on that same day, my sister who was also a masters student of English literature at the same University, had been absent. It could have been her too.
Due to fear from attacks, hundreds of Hazara students dropped out from colleges and universities in the city. In the wake of the attacks, the non-Hazara students declined to share buses with them, as buses carrying Hazara students were threatened by sectarian groups.
Moreover, thousands have been forced to migrate, both legally and illegally, mainly to Australia and Europe. Hundreds died in the sea when old, inexpensive, and overloaded boats carrying poor migrants, capsized several times. Sectarian violence and Shia massacre and persecution of other religious minorities are the specifics of blatant violations of human rights and international human rights law in Pakistan. Over 60, 000 Pakistanis, both civilians and security personnel, have been killed in terrorism related incidents over the last decade.
Since Pakistan is a member of the United Nations (UN) and a party to human rights declarations, treaties, conventions, and covenants such like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), it becomes its utmost responsibility to uphold both national and international law. There has to be a quick and robust action to defeat sectarianism, mainly against the Shias and generally against religious minorities. Though there seems some consensus and action in government’s policy in the post-Peshawar school attack, it is not sufficient.
Steps for fulfilling the responsibility to protect
In this regard, first and foremost, Pakistan has to disown and distance itself from the Saudi-led-and-run notorious Wahhabi war against its Shia competitor, Iran, for Sunni ascendance in the region. Secondly, extremist and militant Sunni groups created by the state for strategic purposes in Kashmir, India, Afghanistan, and occasionally against the west, must be disbanded. The ban should mean, like Huma Yusuf asserts, the arrest of the leadership of the banned groups and ways to stop the recurrence and resurgence of these groups under different names, which has repeatedly happened in Pakistan. No group should remain out of state’s control. The state has to reclaim its independent and sovereign power. It can if it wants to defeat religious terrorism and sectarianism.
Thirdly, the financial support of these groups from Riyadh and Gulf monarchies must be cut down. Fourthly, the culture of impunity for the terrorists must end, as it has been precisely the reason that has failed us so far in defeating this evil. If the Sharif brothers are afraid of Asmatullah Muawiah and want to cut a deal with him after his involvement in terrorism for a long time, they must rethink their policy or step down. They are elected to save the nation, not Raiwand or only Punjab. Hafiz Saeed, Malik Ishaq, and their ilk must be declared as terrorists and put in jail for life time.
Fifthly and most importantly, at least on the issue of religious terrorism and sectarianism, all political parties must take a united stance, as it is a serious common threat to the nation’s survival. Short of a unanimous national policy standpoint and concerted efforts against extremism, all party conferences do not mean anything. What matters the most is what all political parties do together for defeating religious sectarianism and terrorism. In this regard, the Sharif’s conservative PML-N, in disregard of the fear of losing its vote bank to the Imran’s ultra-conservative Pakistan Tehrek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Punjab, must generally change its attitude and policy towards extremist groups in the province. The PTI leader, Imran Khan, must also reframe his thinking towards religious militants. The religious political parties such as Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam Fazalur Rehman (JUI-F) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) must give up their culture of denial and hypocrisy. The right wing religious political leadership must either side with the state in its narrative and action against religious terrorism, or step aside and face the consequences. Much commendable in this regard though, has been the role of Awami National Party (ANP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP), and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Sixthly, Madaris (religious seminaries) that spread hate must be closed down. Generally, Madaris must be strictly scrutinized and brought under state’s control. The Madaris’ leaders who fail to act in line with the state’s national policy on terrorism must be put in jail for there can never be a state within a state. Finally, the Operation Zarb-e-Azb must continue. The judiciary, police, and other security institutions must utilize their full strength and resources to bring the perpetrators of violence to the book. The security of judges of civilian courts must be ensured for fairly and judiciously deciding terrorism cases.