In November last year the legal system in Pakistan was thrown into chaos. President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the judiciary was sacked and some 7,000 lawyers were arrested, with reports of some suffering torture in captivity.
One Pakistani lawyer, however, escaped the warrant for her arrest because she was in the UK giving a speech at the Law Society as part of her role as UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders.
The eminent human rights activist Hina Jilani, whose mandate at the UN ended in April, has spent nearly a decade travelling the world to protect human rights defenders – work that often involved protecting lawyers in their struggle to uphold basic human rights. Having been a persecuted human rights defender herself, there could be no better proof that she was perfectly placed to fulfil the role.
After more than 30 years of campaigning, Jilani is a founding member of dozens of human rights groups and her passion for her work was most recently recognised by this magazine after she was awarded The Editor’s Choice for Outstanding Achievement at The Lawyer Awards in June.
Her campaigning, which previously elevated her towards the UN role on the international stage, now leads her back full circle to her home country, where the deposed judges and lawyers have yet to be reinstated after eight months out of work.
“My first loyalty is to my community – the legal community in Pakistan. Everything that I do at the international level is because I have learnt from my experience as an activist in Pakistan,” says Jilani.
The paradoxical story that saw her become the subject of her work starts a long way from the UN headquarters in New York. It was in the 1960s in Lahore, Pakistan, where Jilani and her sister Asma, also a prominent campaigner, experienced the sharp end of standing up to the establishment. Jilani’s father Malik spent long periods of his life in prison for opposing military dictatorships.
“We were growing up in an environment in which we saw injustices happen and our home taught us never to turn away when we saw it,” she says. “That capacity of being outraged at injustice perhaps drew us in to this field of fighting for human rights.”
This resolve was strengthened in the 1980s when, under a particularly severe military dictatorship, the two sisters set up the first all-female legal practice. In 1986 the pair went further and set up the first free legal aid centre in the country.
“It was an ideal environment for activists to feel that we have to use our professional capacity as lawyers to ensure that the law can be used to promote and protect human rights and restore the dignity of the human person,” says Jilani.
Ensuring the defenders get the help they need was no easy task, and Jilani says eight years at the UN (extended from the normal three) were not enough.
“There are many things I wish I could have achieved,” she says. “Seeking progress in the implementation of human rights is a very difficult job.
Lawyers who are human rights activists are always trying to make what exists work in the manner that achieves the maximum results.
“The struggle’s been hard, very painful at times, but I’m not disappointed with the results, because I learnt very early on as a human rights activist that you don’t set your expectations too high, but you keep striving to achieve the maximum – never lose sight of that and always push towards it.”
Now free from her vital work at the UN, Jilani will be able to spend more time on homegrown troubles, which are of great concern to the veteran campaigner.
“We’re experiencing a very difficult and strange time in Pakistan,” she says gravely. “We had thought that, after the 18 February elections, there would be greater demand for the restoration of the judges as the first step to ensure there’s an independent judiciary. Now we are a little uncertain whether there is political commitment from the government from whom we had a lot of expectations. These are people who’ve taken advantage of the mobilisation of lawyers to achieve their position.”
Jilani is proud of the so-called ‘long march’, which last month saw thousands of lawyers take to the streets to protest. She says it sent a strong message to the government and, perhaps more importantly, the military establishment, which ;she ;says ;has “spread ;its ;roots” throughout the country.
“They’re the ones who are interested in weakening the judicial system and have very personal reasons as to why the judges have been sent home,” she explains. “This message was a very clear one – not only that the lawyers are fully resolved to back up and support the restoration of the judges, but also that the people in Pakistan are much more aware of their right to hold institutions accountable.”
Pakistan ;has ;a ;functional constitution, created in 1973, that lays out a social and legal framework with well-defined fundamental rights guarantees, even if it is stronger for civil, political and economic rights than for social and economic rights. The problem, says Jilani, lies with the ruling classes, who she feels have no respect for the rules.
“They’ve always treated the constitution as a document that can be thrown away when it doesn’t suit them. So the question is one of correcting attitudes in a manner that sees the governing class – especially the Pakistani military – understand that Pakistan will never be a credible nation until there’s strict adherence to the rule of law,” she says.
The day that Musharraf sacked the judges in her home country, Jilani was at a Law Society committee meeting in London. Before returning to her country to support her peers and face house arrest, she spent time gathering valuable support in the UK, including a protest at Downing Street, where she stood side by side with UK lawyers. She believes this was time well spent.
“I’m very grateful to the British legal community for responding to my call and for being there with me when we demonstrated,” she says. “That was an important thing for me – that before you get caught, do whatever you can.
“Globally there’s never been a movement like this led by lawyers. It’s one thing for lawyers to be out demonstrating on the street for one day, showing solidarity on the issue, but it’s another thing for lawyers to sustain the action over the period of more than a year.”
To Jilani’s delight, young lawyers have become the energy of the campaign. Despite many of them being jailed, a large number was back on the streets soon after being released – and they are still fighting. All this in the face of poverty, with none having worked for nearly a year.
In Jilani, though, they have a powerful mentor.
For more on Hina, listen to the July edition of The Lawyer Podcast.