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‘Kosher’ foreign-funds fuel political polarisation in Pakistan

Hassan Naqvi Staff Reporter

27th Nov, 2021. 03:29 pm

Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi addressing the second day of Asma Jahangir conference in Lahore. Photo: Mohsin Raza/Bol News

LAHORE: Allegations against the state institutions, anti-government speeches, controversies, denials and an absconding ex-premier’s speech to boot. The third Asma Jahangir Conference got noticed more because of its lop-sided political agenda rather than for any informative and contextualised debate or discussion on the state of human rights.

The “propagandist nature” of the conference — held in Lahore on November 20-21 — made it a grand assembly of politically disgruntled elements, who by design or default were openly supported and funded by the European Union (EU), the Kingdom of Netherlands and Canada.

Therefore, not just the government, but many independent analysts and commentators have dubbed the whole affair as a foreign-funded show, aimed primarily at bashing the state institutions under the garb of human rights.

Sources privy to the affairs of this controversial event told Bol News that the names of the EU, Netherlands and Canada as among its invitees and donors and sponsors were enough to show their agenda, which in any other country could have sparked a diplomatic row. But not so in the tolerant Pakistan.

Read more: Judiciary not dictated by any institution, says CJP Gulzar Ahmed

However, on November 23, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry in a restrained manner hinted about the foreign-funding issue of the conference. “The series of conferences held in Lahore and Islamabad were foreign-funded,” he informed the Pakistani media after the routine weekly meeting of the federal cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Fawad said that the issue of the foreign-funded conference was also discussed by the cabinet and federal minister Shireen Mazari asked the Foreign Office that under section 41 of the Vienna Convention all donors should be approached to confirm their status.

In response, Jahangir’s eldest daughter and one of the key organisers of the conference, Munizae Jahangir, said that no one is denying that the conference was foreign-funded.

“We have placed names of donors prominently (at the conference) as it is their requirement,” she told Bol News. “Aren’t their ministries, including the human rights ministry of Shireen Mazari foreign-funded for different projects?”

Read more: LHCBA calls for reference against judges who attended Asma Jahangir Conference

She recalled that both Fawad and Shireen, while standing in front of these boards and placards carrying names of foreign donors, had said in 2019’s AJConf that Asma Jahangir’s legacy is in safe hands.

However, Lahore-based analyst, Ahsan Raza, who was present on both days of the conference, said that a cursory look at AJConf-21 shows it was more a PML-N ‘jalsa’ and NGOs’ show rather than an event to pay tribute to the Asma Jahangir and her legacy.

For him, the venue spoke for itself.

“A five-star hotel to discuss the issues of people going to roadside dhabas?” he said. “Sorry, but it was an elite show to discuss the issues of poor people. So many contradictions under one roof. The event could have been a better one if it had the panelists from diverse backgrounds,” said Raza while adding that by all means, it was a corporate mela for the corporate people and by the corporate people.

“Had Asma Jahangir been alive, she would have definitely disapproved of the idea. She would have conducted such an event at a press club, or at a dhaba or in HRCP awami hall perhaps,” Raza said..

Dr Hassan Shehzad, who teaches media at International Islamic University, said that the European Union has been boasting about being the main donor for the conference, while Canada and the Netherlands also funded it.

Read more: PM Imran says unfortunate to see convicted criminal invited as guest before judges

“The ambassadors of all the three delivered speeches there,” he said.

“Everybody who is anybody in the business of running foreign-funded projects in Pakistan was present at the conference,” Dr Shahzad said. “The event looked like a fair of donors and donation-seekers…the question is, what are donations for?” asked Shehzad.

“The donations are generally meant to counter gender discrimination, illiteracy, child labour, climate change and poverty… So, are the organisers doing the needful in this regard?”

He said that for the past several decades donation-getters have spun a kind of a web over the country.

“Every time they get a new project, they cite data showing the gaps in meeting these challenges and how the proposals they prepare will fill these gaps. Empirical evidence, community mobilisation and gender balance etc. are shown to be achieved on the pages and pages they churn out,” he alleged.

Read more: I regret meeting ex-CJP Saqib Nisar when I was PM, says Shahid Khaqan Abbasi

“But a few years later, these gaps are again projected and more funds are begged to cure these ills that have already been cured on paper in many other projects.”

“So my point here is that sponsorship by EU and Canada to such elitist events amounts to mockery of the masses whose misery is showcased there,” he said.

Criticising the AJConf-21, policy analyst Aisha Saeed said the bashing of state institutions had become an unfortunate norm amongst certain politicians, separatist elements, and even among some academics.

“It is a fact that some individuals of the judiciary and members of the opposition parties accuse the state institutions as being oppressors and aides to the current government. While the definition “state institutions” varies…in Pakistan it is used to signify the military and the intelligence agencies,” she observed.

However, she said the involvement of foreign sponsors and speakers of the conference did raise eyebrows.

“It is a fact that over the last few years, the government has shut down the offices of several foreign organisations that were involved in suspicious activities, while operating under the garb of NGOs,” she said.

Agreeing with Dr Shehzad, she said, the involvement of international sponsors like the EU shows that a prior understanding of the details of the events must have been shared by the organisers of the conference.

Read more: Right to privacy is a fundamental human right, says Shireen Mazari

While many representatives and ambassadors appointed to a country tend to avoid such gatherings, the presence of the British high commissioner among other dignitaries who spoke in the event has, indeed, raised many eyebrows, prompting the Foreign Office to seek an explanation on the matter.

Aisha said while the conference was allowed by the local authorities, it resulted in becoming a political conference aimed at taking digs at the government and the state institutions which it was uncalled for.

“The statements made during the conference and what followed after seemed like an attempt to rebrand political movement into that of human rights.”

A senior PML-N leader said on the condition of anonymity that the way the conference provided a platform to Nawaz Sharif gave the impression that the conference organisers and his party leadership worked in tandem.

“I am not sure about the amount given to the organisers, but I am sure that some underhand payments were made, judging from the way it was transformed into our show,” he said.

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