Hina Jilani: leaders need to show more ambition

The human rights lawyer and activist says that world leaders need to show more ambition, and rise above domestic political interests to find resolutions to humanitarian crises

A globally-renowned activist on human rights, Hina Jilani has won landmark battles on women’s rights, child labour and minority rights. She founded Pakistan’s first all-female legal-aid firm in the 1980s, under military rule, and became a thorn in the side of successive governments, often leading protests from the front. In person, she is animated, sometimes loud, and often wryly funny in addressing the shortfalls of an international humanitarian system in which she has often played a major role.

“I don’t study human rights issues and bring out a philosophical study on it. I live it. Therefore, my response to it is going to be much more practical,” she says.

World leaders have allowed parochial political interests to undermine the morality of their response to today’s humanitarian crises, she says. In particular, European and Middle Eastern governments have stepped back from their obligations to Syrian refugees.

What is happening in Syria is not just affecting the Middle East, it is affecting other regions of the world

“Narrow national interests or domestic politics are playing a big role in how the leadership is reacting to the Syrian crisis,” she says. “Unless a solution is found, there is not going to be peace anywhere. What is happening in Syria is not just affecting the Middle East, it is affecting other regions of the world.”

She highlights the aggressive response to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s widely- praised open-door stance on Syrian refugees. Merkel’s opponents were able to exploit the polarisation of the electorate on migration, and in doing so poison the debate. These domestic battles limit the ability of Western countries to be cheerleaders for human rights, Jilani says; those countries that have preached to others about rights, “have not for a long, long time really lived the values that they have talked about.”

Jilani spent eight years as the special representative of the UN secretary-general on human rights defenders, and served on the UN Security Council’s international commission of inquiry on Darfur. Although she spent years within the system, and says she is glad to see that the UN has opened up spaces for civil society worldwide to discuss rights, she is quick to explore its limitations.

The biggest problem that the UN has, she says, is that its constituent states are often the worst human rights offenders. The institution is rarely able to overcome the differences between its members and resolve complex issues by consensus.

“The point is,” she says, “it’s not where [countries] meet that’s important. It’s who is there. It’s leadership.”

The UN political system often ignores the human rights system, she says. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.” This means that, even in peace negotiations brokered by the UN, rights can be sidelined.

“In one country where I went, in my capacity as the special representative,” Jilani recalls, “I was totally dumbfounded when a UN representative of the secretary general who was there in that country said to me: ‘don’t talk about human rights, it makes it difficult for us to find solutions for peace’.”

This lack of ambition has become pervasive amongst world leaders, who have sought expedience — economic or political — over lasting change.

“I think the international community has shown a tendency to be happy with the least. The minimum,” she says. “So the minimum — elections. But what kind of elections? Elections have become a sign of democracy. In that case, in Pakistan, we’ve had two elections for each one term.

Every time the military comes in, we have another election. So if that was the criteria, we would be the most democratic country. In five years, we’ve had three elections, rather than one.”

There have been improvements, she says, and there is an increasing tendency “towards calling a right a right, rather than giving it a fancy name that doesn’t offend anybody,” but there are still too many barriers put in place by an international system that prioritises the views of its constituent states, not those of their citizens.

“The problem with these international forums is that they are still not looking into the eyes of the people. They are looking at people through the eyes of their governments,” she says.