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Stepping into struggle: Hina Jilani on the pull of human rights work and how to improve global refugee policy

Internationally renowned human rights activist Hina Jilani speaks
to OpenCanada about her new focus on the global refugee crisis and her upcoming
trip to Jordan. 

By: /
15 September, 2017
Hina Jilani in Toronto. Credit: Trevor Hunsberger.
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

Hina Jilani, a lawyer for the Supreme Court of Pakistan, has made the promotion of human rights her life’s work. An internationally respected activist, Jilani founded Pakistan’s first all-women law firm, first legal aid centre and the country’s national Human Rights Commission. She served as the UN’s Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders from 2000-2008, and now sits alongside Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and others as a member of The Elders, a group of global thinkers convened by Nelson Mandela.

Despite arrests, abuse and death threats as a result of her work with women and some of Pakistan’s most vulnerable people, she continues to live in her birthplace, Lahore, and wouldn’t change a thing about the life she chose — or rather, the life that chose her. 

Jilani came of working age under the military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in a 1977 coup and used “religion as well as ultra-nationalism to force people into a kind of life that we were not used to,” as Jilani described to OpenCanada in a recent interview.

“This was a period especially dark for non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, as well as for women,” Jilani said. “A lot of legislation was brought into force that discriminated openly against women, undermined their status as citizens, as human beings, in many ways — so as a young professional, that was a period [where] I couldn’t really look away from what was happening.”

“I myself come from a political family. My father was a politician and I grew up seeing him go to jail all the time as a political prisoner fighting against military dictatorships and civilian dictatorships,” Jilani recalled. “So it was not surprising that I found the situation unacceptable, and I thought I had no option but to step into the world of struggle. There were many who were with me at that time, so this was a common struggle that we did wage.”

As of late, much of Jilani’s efforts have been focused on a global refugee crisis that shows few signs of abating. She is now a co-chair of the World Refugee Council, established by the Centre for International Governance Innovation in 2017 with the goal of bringing together thought leaders and innovators from around the globe to discuss, debate and reframe how the international community can best respond to the crisis.

OpenCanada sat down with Jilani in Toronto ahead of the council’s September meeting in Jordan and discussed Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the importance of finding innovative ways of implementing international law, and what elements of Canada’s refugee policies the world can — and cannot — replicate.

Pakistan has seen a steady influx of Afghan refugees, numbering in the millions, since the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the past year, the Pakistani government has forced the return of around 600,000 of them. What was behind this?

The situation in Afghanistan was extremely dangerous and risky. It was not just the Russian occupation, [Western countries] were colluding with the Pakistan military in order to make interventions in Afghanistan through processes that were very, very suspect. A nascent, unrecognizable Islamic movement in Afghanistan was really fed through the agency of the Pakistan military, to help drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. A lot of the Afghan refugees were used for that purpose, which meant that their status in the minds of the public in Pakistan became a little confused. Were they refugees or fighters? Who is going to be responsible [today], is UNHCR going to be responsible for them, through the international community? Or is the government of Pakistan responsible for them, as a host country? Or are the military or secret agencies responsible for them?

In Pakistan, there were people who either disliked or disagreed with the use of the population that had come in as refugees in a certain way by their government; their political thought then determined their attitude towards people who genuinely were fleeing the situation in Afghanistan. I think these are some things that reflect and have a very bad influence on the perceptions of the local population about refugees.

[Sometimes] popular pressures make governments do things that are completely incompatible to the human rights concept and to the Refugee Convention. On the other hand, there are also governments who manipulate public opinion in order to do what they think is best for their interests, not the interests of the state, or the people of their country, or the neighbouring countries.

What can be done to prevent refugees getting caught up in these kinds of political machinations?

When governments or states in the neighbouring countries or in the international community decide to abuse an international security situation that has come about and use it for their own political agendas, refugees do get used. And this is something that I fear. [Any] new thinking on refugees will have to take this into consideration when determining the criteria on which refugee status can be granted, making sure that human rights-compatible policies are enforced in order to make refugees safe, and also include their safety from political manipulations.

This will not happen through legislation. This will happen through some kind of binding monitoring and supervision at the international level of state conduct, to ensure that these things are not going to happen while the refugees are in these countries. There also has to be pressure on governments who are trying to return refugees without giving proof or without determining beyond any reasonable doubt that their safety is ensured in the countries where they came from.  

Some have called into question the 1951 Refugee Convention’s relevance in a 21st century world — what is your opinion?

The Refugee Convention is good, it is still usable and very viable; nevertheless, we should not close our minds to the fact that we may want to, either through additions to the convention or through the rule of application, use more innovative ways of making sure that people in this world are safe while conflicts are raging.

I certainly do have this feeling, and I’ve expressed this many times in the past, even before this whole current crisis came into existence, that agencies that work under the convention have to find newer and innovative ways of applying their mandate. And it can be done; I just think that the policies and practices adopted many, many years ago and which still continue have to change. I also believe that there should be no mental block against adding legislation if necessary at the international level. I know it’s one of the most difficult and the most complex things, but if the change is required then it should be made. The world has achieved a lot in terms of standard-setting and legislation at the UN, why should we hesitate from adding when we think that the need is there? 

I also think that at national levels, governments must pay attention to their legal and policy situations. There are many countries in the world that have not signed the Refugee Convention and have no legislation regarding refugees, migrants or anything of the kind. My country is one of those — and this is a country where for 35 years we’ve had millions of refugees.

Tell us a bit more about what you hope to achieve with the World Refugee Council.

The objective of constructing the World Refugee Council was to analyze and observe the situation in order to be able to prepare a checklist of what needs to be reconsidered, reviewed and put in place in order to ease the situation on the ground.

This will have several levels: how do governments react, how do international organizations react, what kind of guiding principles can international organizations propagate so that governments submit to those and practice those in their conduct of policies and settlement of refugees in their countries?

“The world has achieved a lot in terms of standard-setting and legislation at the UN, why should we hesitate from adding when we think that the need is there?”

Some kind of study should also be made on how the home countries and governments can be involved — they can’t sit back and watch other people take responsibility for their failures. There are many things that can be done by host countries, but at the same time those can be facilitated by many things that can be initiated in the home countries, for instance verifications. Citizens’ registration in home countries should happen more frequently so that long processes could be shortened, and people should be relieved of these waiting periods.

This month, the council is meeting in Jordan. We are planning to visit the camps, we are planning to talk to the policy and decision makers and those who are actually assisting on the ground so that we see what has helped, what has not helped. We are going to talk to the refugees, which is the most important thing — where do they think they need help? We are also going to look at the whole situation of security breaches. This is not something that we feel can be ignored, but I don’t think this is the major issue here — I think this is an artificially and superficially created issue. It’s not as if it doesn’t exist, but the kind of prominence it’s been given, I think, is artificial.

Canada has been lauded for bringing in 40,000 Syrian refugees, but that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the numbers facing neighbouring Middle Eastern countries…

[Justin] Trudeau is perhaps one of the better leaders in the world today who is at least thinking of these issues. But in massive situations like Lebanon, like Jordan, like Pakistan, like Turkey, we can’t pick up these good examples and take it there because of the lack of capacity of those countries, a lack of systems already existing. [In Canada] you have a healthcare system already existing, all you have to do is — perhaps difficult — but kind of expand it, try to modify it a little bit. We have no systems to begin with.

In a poor population, if you have special initiatives and systems created especially for refugees, the local population is going to become very, very frustrated. You have no system of social security — refugees are getting it, in the name of humanitarian help assistance — but you see it as some form of social security that you lack. In countries where there are no processes, no traditional safety nets for the local population, how do you create a separate environment for refugees? I think Germany is on the way to doing it, but I don’t know how we can duplicate that model in countries like mine, without making sure that, generally, systems are created.

Maybe there will be a bigger task this time for humanitarian aid; it won’t be just for the targeted population, but a system should be created for everyone so that refugees get assimilated into that. I recognize the challenges for host governments, and the kind of political backlash that they are getting. I’m not saying that this is meaningless, and it is just prejudice and racism, no, I don’t think that is the issue right now. That’s why I say problems are more social and political [rather than economic]. I think in fact when refugees are settled, migrants come in, economies thrive, so it’s not an economic issue at all, which is something governments must make sure their populations understand, so that they are not insecure economically and they will overcome their social and political biases. Unless they become confident that their resources are not going to be depleted but in fact enhanced, social and political biases will not go away. In fact, that kind of insecurity will feed into the social biases.                                                      

Are there any elements of Canada’s refugee policies that could be replicated in other parts of the world?

In Canada, one thing that I noticed is the involvement of community in the settlement and sponsorship of refugees. I think it’s one of the most brilliant things that I have come across, because what is the most difficult thing for refugees? Even where they’re allowed refugee status, integration becomes very difficult. If you have some kind of a social network, integration becomes much easier. I’ve had the opportunity of actually studying some of these privately sponsored refugees and how their lives are perhaps — I mean, they’re not perfect, even now, but I think they’re doing a little better than those that have come in through the government initiatives. There are people they can turn to, actually call up and say, this is a problem I have. People are helping them with languages, people are helping them with employment.

When we talk about integration, and that is something you will hear time and again in all the thinking and ideas on refugees, what better form or method of integration than giving people employment? Integration, as I have seen with refugees and immigrants all over the world, happens much faster in the workplace. So these are some of the things that I think we need to look at, and not leave to the implementers, but to have something in the law, or some kind of guidelines and guiding principles there to apply when these real situations are occurring. Believe me, from what I see in the world today, these situations aren’t going to end very soon.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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