Top United Nations officials today condemned the assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, the second high-ranking Government official killed since the beginning of the year, reportedly for opposing the country’s blasphemy laws.
“These murders are a tragedy for Pakistan and those who envision a future for the country centred on human rights,” said Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement. “I hope the Government of Pakistan will not only hold the killers to account, but reflect on how it can more effectively confront the extremism which is poisoning Pakistani society.”
Mr. Bhatti, who was Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, died earlier today when gunmen fired on his car as he left his home in the capital, Islamabad.
On 4 January, the Governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was also assassinated in Islamabad by one of his own bodyguards reportedly because he opposed laws on blasphemy, and had called for the pardoning of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death under those laws.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement issued by his spokesperson, called Mr. Bhatti “a prominent advocate for minority rights and a promoter of inter-faith understanding” and encouraged the Government to continue its efforts to combat terrorism, protect the rights of minorities and promote tolerance.
Also condemning Mr. Bhatti’s assassination were four UN human rights experts, who urged that the killing be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. “It is crucial for the Government of Pakistan to act swiftly to fulfil its obligations to protect the lives and the rights of those belonging to religious minorities or advocating their rights,” they underlined in a statement.
The group included UN Independent Expert on minority issues Gay McDougall, who said that today’s tragedy is not only an attack on an individual, but also an attack on the rights of all religious minorities and on human rights in Pakistan.
“Minorities and those who work to promote their rights must be free to do so without fear of violence,” she stated. “The shocking assassination of Mr. Bhatti will spark fear in all those who belong to minorities in Pakistan and the Government must respond in the strongest terms possible to protect them – both in law and in practice.”
Ms. Pillay noted that the two assassinations were symptomatic of pervasive violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and a lack of protection for their places of worship. She urged the Government to declare a moratorium on application of the blasphemy laws and commission a comprehensive review by independent and impartial experts.
“I urge the Government of Pakistan to honour the courageous stand of Mr. Bhatti and Mr. Taseer by supporting their position on the blasphemy laws,” said Ms. Pillay.
“To do otherwise will simply encourage similar acts of violence and lawlessness as a means of scaring governments off from making much needed human rights reforms. Murderers should not be rewarded by getting what they want, in terms of government policy,” she added.
Ms. Pillay appealed to all Pakistanis to condemn the latest killing, saying she was appalled that a number of political and religious leaders, legal professionals and media commentators in Pakistan condoned, or even welcomed, the assassination of Salman Taseer in January.
The High Commissioner also noted with alarm a rise in recent months of extrajudicial killings, abductions and disappearances of minority leaders and political activists in Balochistan province.
More than 50 such cases have been reported since October 2010, with two judges and four advocates reported missing since 20 February. Journalists and human rights defenders have also been attacked.
“There is an urgent need for political leadership in Pakistan to stem this wave of violence and ensure protection both for human rights advocates and for all Pakistani citizens,” added Ms. Pillay.