Defending Human Rights: Keynote from Hina Jilani

Defending Human Rights: Keynote from Hina Jilani

In June 2014, Justice Connect and the Human Rights Law Centre hosted their annual Human Rights Dinner in Melbourne and, for the first time, in Sydney. The highlight of the event was an inspiring keynote address by Hina Jilani, a pioneering human rights lawyer, pro-democracy campaigner, leading activist in Pakistan's women's movement and international champion of human rights. Below is an edited transcript from the Melbourne address.

The Dinners were a great opportunity for the sector and supporters to celebrate achievements and renew our energy to tackle the human rights challenges that lie ahead. They were also an important fundraiser and this year raised approximately $60,000 to be split between the HRLC and Justice Connect. The Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria delivered the vote of thanks for Ms Jilani’s address at the Melbourne dinner, which can be found here, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW delivered the vote of thanks at the Sydney dinner which can be found here.

Defending Human Rights

When I was considering the best themes to speak about while in Australia for the Human Rights Dinner, a terrible tragedy occurred; a tragedy to me personally and to the human rights community in Pakistan. We lost a very valuable colleague, a lawyer and a human rights defender, Rashid Rehman. And so I decided to focus on the perils of defending human rights.

Human rights cannot be promoted or protected without the valuable work of human rights defenders. If they did not exist, respect for the universal value of human rights will remain a dream to be achieved.

It is human rights defenders who work at the local levels and on the ground; who inform the international community of situations as they develop so that the collective efforts of the international community can prevent disasters.

An example is the genocide in Rwanda. Many years ago, a wonderful man, who was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extra judicial killings, went on a mission to Rwanda. On his return he warned the international community that genocide was imminent in that country. Unfortunately the international community failed to take notice - and you know what happened in Rwanda after that. His information came from human rights defenders who were there on the ground. It was human rights defenders who analysed the situation and saw the crisis emerging.

Human rights defenders work in all kinds of situations trying to ensure that human dignity is protected and respected. They are the ones who are on the front line when democracies are at risk and the rule of law is threatened.

Unfortunately there is a cost they pay for the work that they do. Human rights defenders all over the world are subjected to killings, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, torture and vilification campaigns to discredit them and their work. It is not just those individuals who suffer for taking on this burden of speaking truth to power. It is their families who suffer as well.

As a human rights defender, I, and people who work with me, take a calculated risk. I had an experience many years ago when my family suffered because of what I do. My house was stormed by extremist religious militants because of my work defending a 12 year old Christian boy who had been accused of blasphemy and was liable for a death sentence. My house was stormed; my family was taken hostage and would certainly have been killed if there was not a timely intervention by the security forces.

Women human rights defenders find it even more difficult to work. They are more vulnerable to social exclusion and repudiation even by their own families because they are challenging social and cultural mores; because they are talking about the rights of women and their inclusion in all public affairs.

You can imagine what happens when we try to change the mindset that allows people to kill women only because they have exercised some form of autonomy, especially their choice in marriage.  A recent case reported the killing of a woman outside the High Court in the city that I live in.

To my memory this is at least the third such killing that has happened right outside the High Court. I am sure that like everybody else in Pakistan, Judges were aware that women were at grave risk; none of them bothered to make any protection orders to ensure that women who leave their courtroom are able to leave safely.

Raising issues of women’s rights becomes extremely dangerous:  human rights defenders have been killed, tortured [and] excluded from their social environment. Many have had to flee to save themselves because the State failed to protect them.

It is important that not only should declarations be made - there must [also] be protection measures on the ground. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders efficacy has increased by the establishment of a mechanism to oversee the situation: a Special Rapporteur.

Human rights defenders and lawyers now demand a chapter in the penal code on offences by the State, to protect those who expose State violations. It has been estimated that almost one third of serious violations of human rights against human rights defenders have been at the hands of non-State actors. When governments are confronted with their duty to protect human rights defenders against these non-State elements, governments themselves never acknowledge their inability to hold non-State actors accountable [which] points towards their complicity and in a way condones what the non-State actors do.

The international community must think about the duty to protect and make sure peace initiatives include protection for human rights defenders.

Without human rights defenders, democracy will not survive. Without human rights defenders, human rights, the rule of law and all kinds of civilised behaviour will not find support. Nor will there be any accountability or any mechanisms for monitoring and reporting the conduct of governments.

The international community will find it very difficult to act or react in order to prevent serious crimes like genocide. Think, for example, of what is happening in Central African Republic, in Southern Sudan.

These are situations that need the attention of the international community. Let us hope and pray that the people who can bring this to your attention survive. Let us pray that the international community can act in a timely and effective manner to protect those who are really the eyes and ears of the human rights community.

- Hina Jilani

Hina Jilani is a pioneering international human rights lawyer, a pro-democracy campaigner and a leading activist in Pakistan’s women’s movement. Ms Jilani founded Pakistan’s first all-women law firm, its first legal aid centre and its national Human Rights Commission. She was awarded the Millennium Peace Prize for Women in 2001 and was the UN’s Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders between 2000-2008. Last year Ms Jilani was elected to join the International Commission of Jurists and she is also a member of the group of respected global leaders known as The Elders.