5th Asma Jahangir Conference Concludes With Resolve To Carry Forward Her Legacy

The conference spanned over 2 days with over 22 sessions and over 80 speakers from all across the world, including India, Palestine, the EU, and the UK.

5th Asma Jahangir Conference Concludes With Resolve To Carry Forward Her Legacy

On the second day of the 5th edition of the Asma Jahangir Conference, themed 'People’s Mandate: Safeguarding Civil Rights in South Asia,' thirteen sessions were held, drawing participation from human rights activists, lawyers, law students, civil society representatives, and foreign delegates.

The conference was hosted by the AGHS Legal Aid Cell in collaboration with the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan and the Pakistan Bar Council. Thousands of participants, including lawyers, judges, journalists, rights activists, members of civil society, and students, attended the conference and resolved to carry on the legacy of the late Asma Jahangir, who relentlessly struggled against dictators and for the rule of justice, equality for women, and protection of minorities.

The conference spanned over 2 days with over 22 sessions and over 80 speakers from all across the world, including India, Palestine, the EU, and the UK. There were 140 female lawyers who came from underrepresented areas of Pakistan and 140 prosecutors and ambassadors from more than 12 countries.

Discussions during the day covered topics like enforced disappearances, military courts, the radicalization of politics, and shrinking space for women and minorities.

Mahrang Baloch stressed the importance of parliamentary and judicial intervention in resolving the issue of missing persons for real democracy to thrive. Mahrang Baloch stressed the threats faced by families of missing persons and condemned the murder of Balach Moula Bux, labeling it a blemish on Pakistan's judiciary and military.

Jahangir Jadoon, former advocate general of Islamabad, highlighted the helplessness of the courts in cases of enforced disappearances, attributing it to the involvement of intelligence agencies.

In the session on ‘The Expulsion of Afghans,' Mehbouba Seraj from Afghanistan said, "I am disgusted at how Afghans have been expelled by a neighbor such as Pakistan, which has played a role in bringing Afghanistan to its current state."

Seraj, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, called for international collaboration to determine the future of Afghanistan and criticized the interference of Pakistan as well as Iran, Russia, and China in Afghan affairs. “It is compromising Afghanistan's security.”

Patricia Gossman, associate director (Asia Division) of Human Rights Watch, described the dire situation faced by refugees returning to Afghanistan and stressed the need for international attention and assistance.

Mudassir Javed, CEO of SHARP, lamented the lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan, particularly affecting women and children. He questioned the absence of support from the international community, given their promises to Afghan refugees.

Christine Chung, a human rights officer at OHCHR, announced that Pakistan's human rights situation would be reviewed in Geneva in August, raising concerns about its obligations under international law. She warned that Pakistan would face tough questions regarding its failure to implement these obligations in policymaking.

During the discussion on ‘Challenges to women, minorities, and transgender participation in elections,’ Samar Bilour, a former parliamentarian from KP, recounted the difficulties she faced as a female politician in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

Dr. Saveera Prakash, a politician representing minorities in Buner, KP, disclosed facing accusations of exploiting her identity as a woman and a minority during her election campaign.

Raheela Durrani, Minister of State for Education in Balochistan, related her experience of being appointed as deputy speaker but facing a delay in the notification of her position for 10 months.

Sobia Khan, a transgender individual who contested the general elections, lamented the ridicule their community faces upon entering politics.

During the session 'The cost of violence’ on enforced disappearances moderated by senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, Olivier de Frouville, chair of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, urged Pakistan to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

During a session on electoral reforms, John Cushnahan, a former member of the European Parliament, recounted his experience in Pakistan between 2002 and 2004, leading the election observation team. "Upon arrival, I encountered a hostile reaction, including from the ECP." The team's early arrival was perceived as an attempt to catch pre-election rigging, contrary to expectations of a smooth election day.

Senator Taj Haider said that true resistance serves as the real firewall for ensuring free and fair elections.

Addressing the session on ‘Fundemental Rights: Parallel Judicial Systems’, Abid Saqi, former vice chair of the of the Pakistan Bar Council, said that there should be no special courts for separate matters such as accountability or other offenses as it creates parallel systems that can be unfair and without due process.

Barrister Khadija Siddiqi said that 105 civilians have been tried in military courts after the May 9 incident, and the conviction rate for such secret trials being conducted by army officials and not trained judges is, unsurprisingly, almost 100%.

Farhatullah Babar, a former senator, said that there should be a judicial inquiry into the May 9 incident because there are accusations of it being engineered.

In the session on ‘Federalism: Empowering the Processes’, Ahmed Iqbal, former mayor of Narowal, said, “The lack of local government elections has fuelled resentment among the people."

Dr. Malik Baloch, former chief minister of Balochistan, stressed on the importance of devolving real power to the provinces. “Many departments assigned to the provinces are now controlled by irrelevant authorities, leaving only the establishment functioning effectively."

Afrasiab Khattak, former senator, said, "Fulfilling the principles of federalism entails ensuring equitable power distribution among all nations and communities. Unfortunately, the local government structure has consistently suffered during periods of martial law."

Participating in a discussion on ‘Space for dialogue with nationalist parties’, Malik Baloch, former chief minsiter of Balochistan, said the authorities tend to overlook the deeper issues facing Balochistan, merely scratching the surface of our challenges. He asserted that Balochistan has never seen free and fair elections. “But this time, the elections broke all records in tampering.”

Akhtar Mengal, chairman Balochistan National Party, said that while mainstream parties acknowledge the urgency of resolving the issue of missing persons, they have thus far failed to do so effectively. “The solution lies solely in political means, not through the use of force.”

Fauzia Viqar, federal ombudsperson for Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace, explained that less than 13 percent of women in Pakistan have bank accounts and less than two percent women is in the police department. She was addressing a session, titled ‘Legislative constraints and judicial violence against women’.

In the session on ‘Growing debt burden: The impact of state and IMF policies’, former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi expressed regret that the current federal government's income fails to cover the interest on previous loans. He stressed on the need for additional borrowing from the IMF to fund defense expenditure, and acknowledged that the IMF alone cannot resolve Pakistan's economic challenges.

Dr. Ayesha Ghous Pasha, former minister for state for finance and revenue, stated that while Pakistan borrowed approximately 65 billion dollars in the first 65 years of its existence, the country has doubled its external debt in just the last 12 years.

Shahid Hafeez Kardar, former governor State Bank of Pakistan, said bureaucrats and politicians don't want to curtail their expenditures.

Reza Baqar, former governor State Bank of Pakistan, said economic rehabilitation isn't possible without political stability. “We need a non-partisan plan and complete ownership to deal with the problem of debt burden."

During the session on ‘Online hate speech and disinformation’ moderated by activist Usama Khilji, Mehmood Al Hasan, deputy director of the Cyber Crime Wing at FIA, disclosed that the agency receives over 100,000 complaints annually but lacks monitoring powers. “FIA initiates action solely upon receiving complaints.”

Referring to the ban on X, Nighat Dad questioned the rationale behind adopting cyber crime laws without a data protection law. She demanded a re-evaluation of such actions.

Frederick Rawski, Human Rights Asia head at Facebook, explained that the company is trying to find balance in dealing with content related to Israel and Palestine when he was questioned about shadow-banning of pro-Palestine content on the platform. 

While addressing a discussion on ‘Vigilante justice’, Father Khalid Mukhtar from Jaranwala recounted his firsthand experience of the violent incident at St. John's Church and urged for expediting the trials of such cases, which have remained stalled for decades.

Farhat Haq criticized the politicization of blasphemy by TLP.

Discussing ‘Radicalising mainstream politics’, Lala Robin, chairman National Minorities Alliance of Pakistan said, “In my 60 years, I have never seen any equality as citizens when it comes to religious minorities.”

The closing session, ‘The role of political leaders in safeguarding civil rights’, was led by Munizae Jahangir. She expressed disappointment that the participants of the Baloch missing persons sit-in, who travelled from Turbat to Islamabad, were not given a proper hearing even after elections. Also, she called for an end to military trials of civilians and the importance of lifting all restrictions on the internet immediately and asked political parties to form a consensus on a charter of fundamental rights to ensure that rights of citizens are not violated.

Nasreen Azhar, a founding member of WAF, noted the challenges faced by political parties as agents of change and lamented Pakistan's history of military rule.

Yasin Azad, former president SCBA, said: “In my opinion, the strongest institution should be the parliament. He added that we must implore our political leaders to fulfill their roles responsibly and refrain from overstepping boundaries set for various institutions.

Farooq Naek, chairman Pakistan Bar Council, said, “It's crucial to recognize that the law serves as a shield, not a sword, protecting the rights of civilians.”

PTI senator Ali Zafar said when politicians are at odds, it creates an opening for the establishment to intervene.

Chief guest of honour, Yusuf Raza Gilani delivered the concluding speech paying tribute to Asma Jahangir and recalling that when the PPP struck down 58 2(b) , Asma Jahangir said that now instead of the establishment, the judiciary will dismiss Prime Ministers and that is how Nawaz Sharif and myself were removed from power.