Kiran Omar


Monsoons, normally a relief in South Asia, brought unprecedented devastation in Pakistan  this year. The response of the Pakistan government was slow and sporadic.


The monsoons in South Asia are a season of renewal and respite from the blistering, dry heat of Summer. However for Pakistan this past monsoon season (July/August) brought devastation and untold misery as record high rainfall submersed one fifth of the country, flooding villages, towns and hamlets affecting close to 20 million people. Homes, live stock, infrastructure and livelihoods were swept away by the raging flood waters leaving behind devastation that requires Herculean reconstruction efforts. Television screens were filled with images of untold suffering and misery on a scale hitherto unparalleled in one single act of nature. The numbers of people affected surpassed the combined numbers of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 and the more recent earthquake in Haiti in 2010.


The government’s response was slow and sporadic, to the extent that it drew sharp criticism and ire of the international donor community and the United Nations (UN).  While millions were homeless and desperate, lacking basic emergency assistance, President Zardari chose this critical moment to embark on a whirlwind tour of Europe, combining supposedly state business with a personal vacation. No trip of the president could be more ill-timed and one wonders at his advisers and their wisdom. The political fall-out of this ill-timed visit was widespread both internally and internationally.


Pakistan is a country that is ill prepared to respond to disasters and emergencies and one of the magnitude of the July floods simply overwhelmed whatever emergency response machinery it had. A general paralysis ensued, with ministries and institution drifting directionless and with no one body visibly coordinating any relief effort. The civil society once again swung into action, with ordinary citizens pitching in to raise funds, mobilize personnel, resources and coordinating logistical details. International donor response was slow and well below expectations, and repeated calls by the UN and other relief  agencies. Donor fatigue was an often cited reason for the slowness of response, government corruption, ineptitude and lack of transparency in dispersing the aid funds was another main cause of donors shying away from commitments of assistance.


Three months onwards the waters may have abated, but millions remain homeless, displaced, facing an approaching winter and an uncertain future. The public response of the government has been muted and reconstruction plans unclear unformed. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns of water borne diseases and epidemics triggering fears of a second wave of fatalities. A major, coordinated reconstruction effort is yet to be articulated and outlined by the government. The civil society and the very active non-governmental organizations continue to undertake reconstruction and rehabilitation in partnership with international donors and aid agencies.


One bright light that pierced the dark clouds of gloom was the election of human rights lawyer, Asma Jehangir as the first woman President of the Supreme Court Bar Association. It is an occasion to celebrate a woman who has fought long and hard for the preservation of human rights and dignity. Who has lobbied relentlessly for accountability and transparency by the State in its treatment of political detainees and alleged dissidents. She has championed the cause of the marginalized and the underprivileged and worked tirelessly to strengthen democratic institutions. It is also a time to celebrate the recognition of talent, ability and dynamism of women in Pakistan. It is hoped that Ms. Jehangir will restore the much needed balance between the lawyers and the judiciary and ensure that the highest levels of professionalism are maintained allowing the unbiased application of the law. She carries a large load on her shoulders as her 1-year term as president will be under intense scrutiny, and her mettle as an able leader, lawyer, human rights activist and voice of reason will be well tested.


The year winds down on a depressing note as human rights, specifically minority rights continue to take a battering from the infamous Blasphemy Law. In the past month a woman,  Aasia Bibi, belonging to a Christian community was incarcerated under this heinous and unjust law. Her crime being dispensing water to her Muslim neighbouring women working in the fields alongside her, leading to an altercation with the farm workers and ending her being charged under the Blasphemy law for contravening the Islamic religion. Islam in reality has no such barriers or punishments related to caste, creed or social class or any mention of “untouchables”. It it thus even more repugnant that an unjust, divisive and prejudiced law should be promulgated in the name of religion, which seeks to strip minorities of their rights under the Pakistan Constitution. The government’s weak and belated attempt to seek pardon for Aasia Bibi has been met by an enraged backlash by hard line clerical groups that are angrily protesting her pardon and any attempt to abolish or modify the present law. Human rights groups both home and abroad have been vociferously protesting this law and its abomination of human rights, however the present popular mood of the country seems to be tilting in favour of the more hard line schools of political and religious thought. The State is again ineffective and weak in upholding the rights of its citizens and the ripples of intolerance grow wider and deeper.


If the charges against Aasia Bibi are not dropped and a full pardon not granted, the country will topple headlong into a dark era of witch-hunts, religious persecutions and settling of vendettas on the pretext of upholding “religious values”, akin to the European Inquisitions and purges of the Middle Ages. The country’s politicians, civil society members and legislators must ensure that this dangerous and polarizing law be abolished and rights of minorities be protected in accordance to the Constitution and in line with International human rights.

Top - Home