Human rights and diplomacy

A three-day discussion on planning foreign policy decisions from a human rights perspective revealed that this important subject has been neglected in Pakistan by state and civil society alike. The Third World has unhappy memories of the use of human rights as a weapon in big-power conflicts. However, the discussion organised in Jakarta over the weekend by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development brought out possibilities of promoting peace, justice and good governance in the world, especially in the global south, by harmonising foreign policy with human rights. The objective of the workshop was to enhance the capacity of civil society organisations to monitor the desired nexus between diplomacy and human rights. In order to ascertain whether a state was paying due attention to human rights as a determinant of its foreign policy decisions, the participants from Asian countries were offered a set of indicators. Let us see how Pakistan responds to these indicators. The Constitution’s silence on external ties limits the scrutiny of foreign policy. The first question was whether there had been any engagement between the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mofa) and NGOs. If any engagement had taken place, was it regular or sporadic, broad or restricted to certain groups only? A truthful answer might be embarrassing for both the Mofa and the NGOs as the former is one branch of the executive that keeps civil society organisations and the people at large at an arm’s length. The next question was about the parliament’s ability to hold the government accountable for its foreign policy through standing committees and briefing of MPs. Now we do have standing committees but their ability to hold the executive accountable for Mofa’s decisions and its attitude to human rights is debatable, to put it mildly. The heads of these bodies may consider the necessity of providing positive answers. Another question related to the judiciary’s intervention on foreign policy issues. A safe answer would be that the Constitution does not take notice of foreign policy at all and so far the judiciary has avoided taking the government to task for its foreign policy bloomers. One was also asked as to how the foreign service in Pakistan was structured, how much of governance reform had taken place and how much capacity the foreign affairs’ ministry had in terms of human and financial resources. All one knows is that recruitment to the foreign service is done through competitive examination for the civil services and to qualify for senior positions the foreign service officers have to undergo some training at the National School of Public Policy. There have been reports about a foreign service academy but little is known about its accomplishments. As for reforms, ambassadors have being harangued now and then by the top man in authority, and quite a few stories have been going round about Ziaul Haq’s stamina for sitting through such sessions and taking copious notes, but one doubts if any reform of the foreign service has ever been attempted or that a link between human rights and diplomacy has been discussed. The issue certainly deserves to be examined by all concerned. There must be some clear objectives, besides paying homage to aid-givers and keeping faith with the ‘good’ Muslim states, that Pakistan’s diplomats should respect. An interesting question was: “To what extent do national security and defence legislation, bylaws and motivations regulate public participation in foreign policy and free movement of people?” What a query. Who does not know that all actions and thoughts of a Pakistani citizen, intentional or unintended, are regulated by national security myths of the establishment? The extent of media interest in foreign policy and its effect on human rights was also discussed. The media does often question the government on its foreign policy choices but rare must be the occasion when it has assessed foreign policy options from a human rights perspective. The issue certainly deserves the attention of media associations. The final question was whether one saw a link between the government’s positions on thematic issues internationally and domestic conditions. The themes specifically mentioned included freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. An answer to this question was available in the record of Pakistan’s voting on a recent resolution in the Human Rights Council on the freedom of peaceful protest. Pakistan joined China, India and Saudi Arabia in trying to dilute the resolution through a series of amendments. The first amendment called for a state’s right to regulate the freedom of peaceful protest under national legislation: the ground in the second amendment was threat to national security; and the third amendment sought to make the organisers of protest responsible for the consequences. Pakistan was also said to have argued that no protest that affected the glory of Islam could be allowed. That all these amendments were rejected by the council should have caused considerable embarrassment to the people if the government had fulfilled its obligation to inform them of what it says in Geneva or New York. This is a serious issue and civil society organisations must urge the government to respect transparency and if this demand is not heeded they should start informing the citizens of their government’s voting record at international forums. All institutions are handicapped in their task of scrutinising foreign policy decisions by the Constitution’s silence on Pakistan’s external relations. The point will become clearer if we study Article 4 of the Brazilian constitution, which says: “The international relations of the Federative Republic of Brazil are governed by the following principles; i) national independence; ii) prevalence of human rights; iii) self-determination of the peoples; iv) non-intervention; v) equality among the states; vi) defence of peace; vii) peaceful settlement of conflicts; viii) repudiation of terrorism and racism; ix) cooperation among peoples for the progress of mankind; and x) granting of political asylum”. Official spokespersons are likely to assert that Pakistan’s foreign policy is in fact based on the principles quoted above. Such statements do not have the force of a constitutional commitment that would make deviations justiciable. There is indeed much need to break with retrogressive forces and for strengthening respect for human rights through diplomacy.–Dawn]]>

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