Wednesday, June 15, 2005

An open letter

An open letter to Helen Clark, Phil Goff, and Marian Hobbs.

Dear government ministers,

I'm writing to you in your functions as Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs repsectively, about the upcoming visit of President Pervez Musharaf of Pakistan. On Monday, the Prime Minister said in her press conference that she would not be raising the issue of women's rights with President Musharraf as she hadn't been briefed on the issue by MFAT and wasn't aware of "anything specific [she] should be raising". I think that in the case of Pakistan, there are some very specific human and women's rights issues the New Zealand government should be raising, and in the strongest possible terms.

According to the US State Department's 2004 country report for Pakistan (, torture is widespread in Pakistan and is used by both the police and security services to elicit confessions. Methods used include "beating; burning with cigarettes; whipping the soles of the feet; prolonged isolation; electric shock; denial of food or sleep; hanging upside down; and forced spreading of the legs with bar fetters". The report quotes the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as estimating that there are up to 5000 cases of police torture every year. The police have a culture of impunity and engage in extrajudicial killings and even rape. Arbitary detention is common, and people are frequently denied a fair trial. Maybe you should be raising that?

The same report also talks about women's rights in Pakistan. The Pakistani government tolerates honour killing, it fails to protect women against domestic violence, and it frequently responds to rape cases by prosecuting the victim for adultery or fornication rather than the perpetrator for rape. These problems are all built into the Pakistani legal system and therefore amenable to change through government policy. Maybe you should be pushing for that change?

Or, if you'd like something specific to raise, what about the case of Mukhtaran Bibi? Three years ago, she was sentenced to be gang-raped by her tribal council, as a punishment for a crime committed by her brother. The allegation against her brother turned out to be false, and she pressed charges against her abusers. Six were sentenced to death. In March, those convictions were overturned on appeal, and the case is now before Pakistan's Supreme Court. Ms Mukhtaran has spoken out against this. The Pakistani regime's response has been first to place her on the exit control list, preventing her from publicising her case at a human rights conference in the US, and now to detain her incommunicado in order to protect Pakistan's reputation. If you really want to "walk the talk" on human rights, you could start by pressing for Ms Mukhtaran's immediate release and freedom to travel. You could follow up by urging the Pakistani regime to dismantle the barbaric system of tribal justice that hands down sentences of rape as a form of collective punishment, and by asking them to focus on punishing the perpetrators of crime, rather than its victims.

New Zealand has a long history of standing up and speaking out in support of human rights. I'm asking you to continue to do so, by raising the above issues with President Musharraf this weekend. And I will be judging your government on election day by its response.


No Right Turn -