'Pak government is in the process of setting up an NHRC'

The Inquirer

Syed Mumtaz Alam Gillani

As the first Minister for Human Rights Syed Mumtaz Alam Gillani is busy putting nuts and bolts of the new ministry in place. In a chat with Rajesh Deol of Deccan Herald, who was recently in Lahore, Gillani talked about challenges facing his ministry in the wake of complex human rights situation in Pakistan; Indo-Pak relations and the ongoing war on terror.

How would you describe the human rights situation in Pakistan?
It was the dream of Benazir Bhutto who envisioned this ministry after attending a UN conference in 1994. I agree there are human rights violations, which need to be tackled. We are conscious of human rights violations relating to minority communities as also against women and children. Our government and my ministry are committed to improving the human rights situation in the country.

What measures has your ministry taken to improve the situation?
We have taken several steps to deal with human rights violations. For a start, the parliament is deliberating the draft bill for setting up National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. We intend to set up a task-force at district levels consisting of a cross-section of the civil society, including members from minorities and women, to deal with human rights violations. My ministry has also proposed separate fast-track courts for cases relating to human rights violations at the district level. A national committee on human rights, that includes the federal minister for human rights, minister for internal security and provincial ministers for human rights has been set up that meets every three months and evaluates human rights situation.

Which are hurdles you encounter in tackling human rights violations?
There are certain impediments which are cultural and systemic. Customs and beliefs of various communities; lack of awareness about rights; poverty which forces young children into labour; attitude and training of police; crowded jails and the system of justice that leads to long pending trial of cases; are some of the biggest hurdles in creating an ideal human rights situation.

We are focusing on campaigning and advocacy to make people aware about their rights and capacity-building of NGOs and organisations engaged in the field of human rights.

The recent attacks against Christians in Gojra raise questions about the safety and security of minorities in Pakistan. What action has the government taken against perpetrators of violence at Gojra?
Seven people belonging to the Christian community were killed and their houses were burnt in the unfortunate incident. The provincial and federal governments realised the gravity of the situation and immediately swung into action. Nearly 120 persons have been arrested. Officials have been asked to camp at site till houses were built and all the injured have been taken care of.

Human rights activists point at disappearance of hundreds of youths in Pakistan ever since it partnered with the US in war against terror.
In the past one-and-a-half year, since the PPP-led government took over, not a single case of any disappearance has been reported. When I took over, about 460 persons were reported missing since 9/11. Of these, 180 persons have been got released through suo moto interventions by the supreme court. In Balochistan, about 1,100 persons were reported missing, of which 800-900 are reported to have crossed borders to neighbouring Afghanistan.

There are increasing worries about a humanitarian crisis in Pakistan due to lakhs of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) who have lost their homes due to military action in the Swat valley. How does your government view the situation?
It is a serious situation. We have sought financial aid from the international community to provide shelter, food and medicines to a large swathe of over 20 lakh displaced people uprooted from their homes in the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP). So far, we have not got much aid to meet the needs of these people. We are trying our best to mitigate their sufferings.

On the other hand, the government feels the action against Taliban has to be continued. The army operation has so far been very successful. We have got Swat back. The operation continues in north Waziristan.

How does your government view the status of Indo-Pak relations after the joint statement between the two prime ministers at Sharm El-Sheikh?
Anything that leads the leadership of the two countries to the table has to be welcomed. We hope that the process of composite dialogue will begin soon between the two countries.

Some sections in the Pakistani media were euphoric about the joint statement de-linking composite dialogue from the action on terror and the mention of Balochistan. Does your government share this euphoria?
No, there is no euphoria; though we take the statement positively and welcome it.
As regards the mention of Balochistan, it is a double-edged weapon. This may lead to a situation where India could manipulate the mention of Balochistan in future dialogues.

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