Everyone is entitled to a dignified life and no society can advance unless the individuals within it are free from fear and can at least enjoy basic political rights.

Acceptance speech – Asma Jahangir

Ladies and gentlemen, Receiving an award is humbling and these are moments for reflection. I always have mixed feelings when being honoured for my contribution towards the promotion and protection of human rights. We have made some gains but we have a long way to go. When I was growing up under dictatorship, denial of freedom of expression and gender inequality was justified in the name of stability. Child labour was easily explained away as being an “evil necessity”. Religious persecution and racism was easily tolerated. These ills have not disappeared, but they are widely condemned in most parts of the world.

However, there still are major challenges that we face. Freedom of conscience is still being denied in many parts of the world and even at the level of the United Nations there is no consensus on this important human rights issue. There are plenty of laws that deny individuals the right to adopt a religion of their choice or the right to choose not to belong to any religion at all. Women continue to be killed in the name of honour and the perpetrators are given virtual impunity by law. Capital punishment is enforced in many countries despite strong evidence that it is often the marginalised that see the gallows and mistakes have been acknowledged.

I am fortunate to share this distinction with my co-awardees. Each one is highly distinguished. We share the moment where past challenges continue and disturbing developments confront us. The rights of women continue to advance but at the same time there are strong militant forces that viciously deny women even the very basic rights like education for girls. There are societies where a woman cannot marry a person of her choice or is brutalised for stepping out of her four walls without a male escort. There are governments that will not allow a woman to drive a car!

There are trillions of dollars spent on so-called security; yet innocent girl victims in Nigeria could not be protected. Such incidents are indications of decay in global governance. Security oriented institutions and individuals, rather than people with ideas and creativity are taking the lead in making global policies. Security and economic interests take precedence over human rights and sustainable peace. The process of democracy is not maturing with the passage of time. Governments are crawling while the people are racing ahead. The gap between expectations of the people and the deliverance of sound governance is widening.

I am often asked about the risks an activist takes during their struggles. My response is that in the past we risked being imprisoned by the authorities, now we face the danger of being killed by mafias, militants and mobs with impunity. In the past, people had hope and energy. I fear that resilience is fading away. I would like to take this opportunity to pay homage to several human rights activists, journalists, poets, writers, lawyers and labour leaders of Pakistan who have dedicated their entire lives to upholding freedom, justice and peace. We have experienced severe oppression but there has also been an equal measure of resistance against tyranny in Pakistan. I would like to express my deep gratitude to my colleagues in the legal profession and the human rights movement, as well as, to several Pakistanis who stood by me during critical moments.

Often I have been asked if I had any plans of leaving Pakistan because of numerous threats. Without any hesitation I have replied negatively because in comparison to the terror of some, the warmth I have received from others is overwhelming. Pakistan has numerous problems and several faults, but it is also unique in its perseverance to overcome intolerance, boldly face authoritarianism and in denouncing terror acts carried out in the name of religion. Pakistanis have deeply suffered and they deserve better.

Thank you once again. This award further obliges me to continue my support for the cause of human rights. The award money will be used to help set up a web radio, to institute human rights awards in educational institutions in Pakistan and to support human rights defenders under threat.

Asma Jahangir
AGHS Law Associates
131-E/1, Gulberg- III
Lahore, 5400