Feb 12, 2018

UNPO Expresses Deep Sadness at the Passing of Pakistani Human Rights Defender Asma Jahangir

Photo Courtesy of UN Geneva @ Flickr

On Sunday 11 February 2018, Asma Jahangir, a leading figure in human rights and a defender of democracy and the rule of law in Pakistan, passed away in Lahore aged 66. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation is deeply saddened by this loss to the fight for justice, freedom and equality for minorities and indigenous people in Pakistan. 

Born into an affluent family in Lahore in 1952, Asma Jahangir was exposed to politics from a very early age, giving her an insight into the dire situation of human rights in Pakistan. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, was a civil servant who himself was an outspoken critic of military rule in Pakistan, which saw him often jailed for speaking out against the status quo. Thus, from an early point she joined in protests against her father's arrest as well as the military’s influence and interference in the political process of Pakistan. Following her studies, she appeared in court defending her father against the charges brought against him.

She received her LLB from Punjab University in 1978. Following this she was called to the Lahore High Court in 1980, and the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1982. She was a staunch critic of Zia ul Haq’s military rule and his Islamisation of the Pakistani state apparatus. During Zia ul Haq’s dictatorship she got involved in democracy activism by participating in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, which sought to bring back democracy and end Zia’s military dictatorship.  It was during this period, in 1983, that she was jailed for her activism by the military government.

In 1987 she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and served at its head until 2011. The NGO’s main aims are to spread awareness of Human Rights, collect information on abuses as well as monitoring and defending human rights in the country. In addition to speaking out for democracy and against military rule, Asma Jahangir was an unwavering defender of minority and women’s rights, criticising the horrific legal and societal persecution that religious and national minorities in Pakistan face, as well as the unjust situation of many women across the country.

She was put under house arrest in November 2007 by the orders of military dictator Pervez Musharraf, along with hundreds of other lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists. This was a direct result of attempts by civil society activists to restore democracy.  

Her vigorous defence of minority, religious, and women rights saw her serve as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion from 2004 to 2010, and more recently she was named the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran in 2016.  

For her work championing minority rights and speaking out against corruption at all levels in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir was targeted by threats on her life by hard lined militants and those within the military establishment. Furthermore, she was accused of being a traitor to Pakistan and an Indian agent for her advocacy of peace with India.

Despite this, her tireless campaigning for justice has earned her a place in history as one of the greatest human rights defender and champion of democracy. She was a role model for hundreds of women in Pakistan for standing up to patriarchal norms, and gave a voice to the millions of voiceless in the country who continue to be persecuted day in and day out with complete impunity. Her passing has brought a dark day on human rights activism and UNPO mourns her loss greatly.