Wednesday, 7 March 2012
Topical Issue Matters
Human Rights Issues
I raise the matter of the need for reform of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan on the first anniversary of the murder of Mr. Shabaz Bhatti, a former Pakistani Federal Minister for Minorities who was an outspoken critic of these laws. He also supported the case of Mrs. Asia Bibi who was imprisoned under these laws and whose case is on appeal. The matter is being raised on a cross-party basis and with the support of Independent Deputies. It is also being raised today in a number of parliaments throughout the world.
I call on the Government to reiterate our support for Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which acknowledges the rights to freedom of religion and speech and for the reform of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. A number of parties in Pakistan support the call for their reform and attempts have previously been made to this end, including by the ruling party in Pakistan. A Bill brought forward last year by a Pakistan People's Party Member of Parliament aimed at their reform was withdrawn.
A great deal of pressure is exerted internally in Pakistan not to reform the blasphemy laws. There are different reforms that could be introduced. Many convictions are achieved in the lower courts and it has been proposed that such matters should, in the first instance, be dealt with in the higher courts. It is important that a friendly country such a Ireland put pressure on Pakistan to reform the laws and the government will need the support of other countries in doing so.
I add my voice to those of my colleagues from the other political parties and the Independent benches in support of Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They acknowledge the rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which comprise some of the basic human rights a person can have. At my party's conference over the weekend, I spoke on true republicanism and on liberty, equality and fraternity. We are fortunate to live in a republic in which one can have freedom of speech and religion. Unfortunately, for many years these were not always tolerated but, thankfully, that no longer is the case.
I support my colleagues on this issue, which we have raised on the anniversary of the horrific murder of the former Pakistani Federal Minister for Minorities. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade should bring forward all possible pressure to ensure Pakistan reforms its blasphemy law. I support this because I consider the recognition of a crime of blasphemy to offend the basic human rights of freedom of religion and speech. I believe all governments have a duty to protect their citizens from violent religious extremists. We are fortunate we do not suffer in this country in that regard and I support my colleagues in urging the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to bring to bear any pressure he can on the Pakistani Government.
I acknowledge the work of Deputy Tuffy and Mr. David Turner in organising a petition on the case of Mrs. Asia Bibi last September, which was a first positive step. Ireland is seeking election to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2013-2015 term, and we deserve that seat. We have a fine reputation in respect of relationships with other countries and with regard to our development aid budget. Like Deputy Mac Lochlainn, I have just come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, at which this point was being made. I also heard the same point last night at a presentation by various NGOs. As we know Ireland has such a reputation and has a voice that is listened to, I believe it has a role in this regard, even though it concerns a country that is far distant from Ireland.
Governor Salman Taseer was murdered in January 2011 and this was followed in March 2011 by the murder of the Federal Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti. They were two brave men who spoke out against Pakistan's blasphemy laws and paid with their lives. The situation now has arisen concerning the aforementioned lady, Mrs. Asia Bibi, who is in jail. Part of her difficulty is that no date has been given and, consequently, she could remain in jail for a number of years before her case is heard. In common with my colleagues, I advocate marking this anniversary by reiterating our support for Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In her response, the Minister might indicate any correspondence the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has had with the Pakistani authorities.
I welcome the opportunity to add my party's support to this initiative from Deputy Tuffy and Mr. David Turner of the Church in Chains organisation. A series of reprehensible events has led to this initiative today. Unfortunately and sadly, many countries lack genuine religious freedom which is a fundamental human right. Huge challenges exist in Pakistan for its Government to grapple with, but it has not met these challenges to date. They include the murder of one of its own Ministers, who was leading a campaign to reform the blasphemy laws and who was trying to address the injustices within that country. The purpose of raising this Topical Issue matter is to show solidarity and unity. I am certain that all political parties and Independent Members in this House will unite to send a message to the Pakistani Government that it must address this issue. We are partners with Pakistan in the global community. While it has an embassy in and relationships with this country which we value immensely, this issue must be addressed. I hope the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will meet the Pakistani ambassador on foot of this topical matter and will engage with the Pakistani Government to convey the concerns of his House to it and to ask it to address these issues.
I thank Deputies Tuffy, Troy, Mac Lochlainn and Maureen O'Sullivan for raising this important matter. Human rights are and always have been a priority of successive Irish Governments and a key plank of their foreign policy. Together with our EU partners, Ireland monitors the human rights situations in many countries throughout the world on the basis of information obtained from a variety of sources, including both official channels and non-governmental or civil society organisations. Where and when the situation warrants, we make known our concerns about human rights violations to the governments in question. We do this bilaterally, through the EU or through action at the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council, as appropriate.
The Government remains concerned about the case of Mrs. Asia Bibi. In November 2010 a Punjabi court found Mrs. Bibi guilty of blasphemy and sentenced her to death by hanging. This is the first time a woman has been sentenced to death in Pakistan under its blasphemy law. When the case came to the attention of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the ambassador accredited to Pakistan at the time called upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad to convey Ireland's concern at the conviction and sentence. He also expressed our disquiet at the nature of Pakistan's blasphemy law. Since that time, a number of representations have been made to the Embassy of Pakistan by senior officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mrs. Bibi's case and Pakistan's blasphemy laws were discussed at length during bilateral political consultations in Dublin in 2011, which were held with the Pakistani Additional Foreign Secretary for Europe. In the course of these consultations, Ireland's concerns about the conviction, the sentence and the nature of Pakistan's blasphemy laws again were strongly expressed.
At the European level, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, also has expressed her concerns at the Bibi judgement and others like it and has called on Pakistan to respect human rights as guaranteed under international conventions to which it is a party. The EU engages in regular dialogue with Pakistan on human rights and democratic principles, including religious discrimination. The EU has called on the Pakistani authorities, at the highest level, to adopt measures to protect individual and minority rights in line with its constitution and with international human rights standards and conventions. The EU has made clear to the Government of Pakistan that under its constitutional and international requirements, it has a responsibility to protect its citizens regardless of their faith.
The controversial application of the blasphemy laws is a source of deep concern for the EU. In the view of Ireland and its EU partners, the blasphemy laws in their current form are open to abuse. Most recently in the EU-Pakistan dialogue on human rights that took place in February 2012, the EU expressed concerns at the rise of fundamentalist and sectarian violence and encouraged the Government of Pakistan to reform the blasphemy laws, emphasising nevertheless that the response needs to be broader and that real efforts to counter intolerance must come from Pakistan itself.
Respect for human rights is a cornerstone of foreign policy for both Ireland and the European Union as a whole. The Pakistani Government has made commitments to protect religious minorities and to promote religious tolerance. However, real and tangible progress on the ground is what is required. I urge the Pakistani Government to resolve Mrs. Bibi's case as soon as possible and to initiate a thorough review of its blasphemy law, including the use of the death penalty. I also ask it to respond to the concerns of Ireland and the international community by addressing the conditions of Mrs. Bibi's detention. Mrs. Bibi's case will continue to be followed closely by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and officials in his Department will remain in contact with the Pakistani authorities on this matter.
I welcome the Government's efforts to date in respect of this matter. I hope pressure will continue to be exerted in any bilateral discussions involving the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and both the Government of Pakistan and that county's embassy here. I also hope that what the Minister for Social Protection stated in her reply will be conveyed to the Pakistani embassy. I acknowledge the efforts of the Church in Chains organisation, to which Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan referred earlier, in respect of this matter. Church in Chains has done a great deal of work in the context of keeping this matter on the agenda and in keeping Deputies informed.
I am glad there is cross-party support in respect of this extremely important matter. I encourage the Government to continue on its current path in the context of highlighting this issue at every level to ensure that Mrs. Bibi's case will be resolved as quickly as possible. As long as the blasphemy laws in Pakistan remain as they stand, there is a danger that similar cases will arise. Unless the legislation in Pakistan is amended, there will be further problems. The Government should continue to work with the EU to ensure religious freedom and freedom of speech will be protected.
One of the other alarming aspects of cases of this nature is the way in which death sentences are carried out by mobs. I accept that the Pakistani Government has indicated that it is committed to this issue. However, it appears to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. Given that the anniversary of the murder of the late Minister for minorities has just passed, I am of the view that strong representations should be made to the Pakistani ambassador and that he should be asked to take this matter further.
I thank the Minister for replying on behalf of the Tánaiste. A petition signed by 26 Oireachtas Members from various parties has been given to the Pakistani ambassador. The Pakistani Government is, therefore, aware of the views of politicians of all hues in this House and that of the Government. However, it is time for action to be taken. It is intolerable that religious discrimination and human rights abuses are accepted in Pakistan to the point where even a Government Minister who was trying to take action on this matter was assassinated. It is time to move beyond the niceties of diplomacy and demand that the Pakistani Government offer a more appropriate response. I request that the Tánaiste communicate with the four Deputies who raised this matter and provide them with a report on the further steps he proposes to take in respect of it.
I again thank the four Deputies for contributing to the debate on this matter. I am very conscious of the fact that Mrs. Bibi is the mother of five children. We are on the eve of International Women's Day and the sentiments expressed by the Deputies provide a strong indication of the difficulties experienced by women in confinement.
It is approximately ten years since the people voted to formally end the use of the death penalty in this country by having the appropriate clause inserted in the Constitution. As a result, our opposition to the death penalty is now reflected in that document. Ireland is acknowledged internationally as being one of the countries which is most strong in raising matters of this nature bilaterally with the relevant governments, at the EU and at the relevant UN fora. I will convey to the Tánaiste the sentiments expressed by the Deputies.