Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Unrelenting on Human Rights and Democracy: An obituary for Pakistan’s Asma Jahangir

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

“‘Speaking truth to power’ is a phrase we often use,” wrote Raza Rumi, one of Pakistan’s leading liberal journalists, about Asma Jahangir, one of Pakistan’s most outstanding human rights and pro-democracy activists, who has died today in her home city of Lahore after heart failure. “She lived, practiced it till her last breath.” Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission that she co-founded became an inspiration and something of a model for the one in Afghanistan. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig met Asma Jahangir when he was a political officer in the UN mission to Afghanistan, UNSMA and here presents an obituary of her. 

Raza Rumi’s sentiment is one shared by many mourning the passing of Asma Jahangir, the small, resolute and, in private, “mischievously affable”, lawyer and “street fighter” who only reached the age of 66.

Asma Jilani Jahangir was born in 1952, five years after Pakistan had been founded as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had wished it to be a secular state, but it drifted away into military dictatorship and Islamism. To defend and stand up for Jinnah’s idea was the thread that wove through Asma Jahangir’s life. It earned her the life-long hatred of the mullahs and the military, as well as threats, beatings and imprisonment.

She was six years old when, as Dexter Filkins wrote, her father – a wealthy landowner and government official – surprisingly quit his job in protest against the first military coup in 1958 and moved into opposition. The young Asma witnessed how he was arrested, harassed, survived an assassination attempt and the family’s land was confiscated. Filkins quoted Asma telling him that her father had said:

… that once a military government came it was a declaration that civilian institutions have failed. He was not really an idealist by nature, but he was strangely committed to the question of democracy and human rights.

Asma’s mother, college-educated but not politically active, took over caring for the family by opening a clothing business.

Asma seems to have been inspired by her father’s attitude. In the late 1960s, at 17, she organised her first demo, a women’s protest against the military regime. She climbed on the Punjab governor’s house and hoisted a black flag on it. Ever since, and subsequently armed with a law degree, she stood at the forefront of all pro-democratic struggles in her country. “However flawed democracy here is,” she told Filkins, “it is still the only answer.”

With her father, she set up a trust fund for political prisoners. She also fought against impunity in cases of so-called honour killings, against child labour and bonded labour (a form of slavery), capital punishment and so-called extra-legal killings of activists and journalists by Pakistan’s military establishment. She defended women who had been raped, but were accused of zina, adultery, and members of religious minorities against accusations of blasphemy. Professionally, she made it up to Advocate at Pakistan’s High Court and was also the first female leader of Pakistan’s Supreme Court bar association

With sister Hina Jilani and other colleagues, she founded Pakistan’s first ever women’s-run law firm in 1980 and later Pakistan’s first pro bono legal aid centre as well as a shelter for women who had suffered violence. She protested against the country’s Islamisation, the result of the introduction of the so-called Hudood ordinances, under military dictator General Ziaul-Haq in 1977. When she joined the popular movement for the restoration of democracy in 1983, she was incarcerated for the first time. An iconic photograph from that time shows her in her lawyer’s robe, angrily defending herself against two veiled, club-wielding policewomen.

Asma Jahangir also participated in the lawyers’ protest movement against the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf and, in recent days, supported the civil-rights Pashtun Long March in Pakistan.

In 1986, she was a founding member and Secretary General, later chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In 2001 and 2002, she advised UNSMA, then the UN mission to Afghanistan, about establishing a similar commission for this country; that idea became part of the 2001 Bonn agreements.

By then, also well-known and respected internationally, she was appointed the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions (1998-2004), on Freedom of Religion and Belief (2004-10) and, since 2016 and until she died, for human rights in Iran.

The 2003 Afghanistan report

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Jahangir visited Afghanistan – including Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat – in October 2002. She said (quoted here) she had heard “horrifying” accounts of summary executions carried out no by the former Taliban regime, but also, both before and after the Taleban. She criticised the “atmosphere of impunity and fear” in the country and that “those who leak information on violations of human rights are threatened.” She also criticised a then recent example of “excessive use of force by coalition forces“ in Uruzgan province in July 2002 where, according to Afghan authorities, 48 civilians were killed and 117 wounded in United States air strikes and “despite interventions by local (non-governmental organizations), the authorities have looked the other way.“

In her mission report, she called for an international inquiry into human rights abuses in Afghanistan during the previous 23 years of war:

The Special Rapporteur recommends that an international and independent Commission of Inquiry be constituted, backed by the United Nations, as a first step towards accountability. The mandate of the Commission should be limited to undertake an initial mapping-out and stocktaking of grave human rights violations of the past, which could well constitute a catalogue of crimes against humanity. The period should begin from the “Saur Revolution” (1978) and end with the establishment of the Interim Authority.

 Parallel to this, the [Afghan] Independent Human Rights Commission should be encouraged and supported to debate and solicit wider opinion on possible mechanisms for transitional justice.

AP quoted her as also saying:

The findings of this commission of inquiry will be a stepping stone toward setting up a mechanism of accountability so that perpetrators are brought to justice. 

Jahangir’s report included a seven page “glimpse” into past and present grave human rights violations and a report on a recent trial in Kabul of a perpetrator of human rights violations who was sentenced to death; she expressed grave concerns about the lack both of due process and – as the death sentence was given – “conformity with the United Nations safeguards and restrictions relating to the imposition of capital punishment.”

Jahangir’s report became the basis for the UN’s ‘Mapping” Report’ (2005) that was published briefly before being removed. It used public sources to map the war crimes of 1978 to 2001. The report was cached and published and an account of why it was repressed by AAN guest author Ahmed Rashid can be read here). This reluctance to face up to past war crimes, along with granting amnesties for war criminals and a failure to hold more recent perpetrators to account are all part of the background as to why the International Criminal Court may decide to investigated Afghanistan for post-2003 war crimes (see most recent AAN analysis here).

The struggle goes on

Malala Yusufzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Pakistan’s younger human rights icon, tweeted on Sunday:

Heartbroken that we lost Asma Jahangir – a saviour of democracy and human rights. I met her a week ago in Oxford. I cannot believe she is no more among us. The best tribute to her is to continue her fight for human rights and democracy.

Raza Rumi, the journalist quoted earlier called her a hero for the way she questioned the powerful – mullahs, the military, judges and politicians – and defended the downtrodden, for facing threats and attacks never being afraid.

Tributes have also starting to come in from Afghans. Describing her as a mentor and inspiration, former Afghan Independent Human Rights Commissioner, Nader Nadery, told AAN that Asma Jahangir had been the bravest person he had ever known:

“Until her last days she did not stop courageously standing up to dictators, criminals and religious fanatics….The void she leaves behind will not easily be filled. She will remain an icon of struggle for human rights and democracy in one of the most troubled parts of our world.” 

Asma Jahangir leaves behind husband Tahir Jahangir and three grown up children, two daughters and a son, as well as grandchildren. She also authored two books: Divine Sanction? The Hadood Ordinance (1988) and Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan (1992).

Also read this excellent article about her by Saroop Ijaz in the Pakistani Herald (2016).


Edited by Kate Clark