Silencing Voices in Pakistan

Another prominent activist is killed, as the free speech Canada once actively promoted continues to be under threat.
By: /
April 30, 2015

Last Friday, April 24, another brave activist in Pakistan, Sabeen Mahmud, who stood for human rights, was killed in Karachi.  She was shot in her car, her mother critically injured, while returning home from a talk on the silencing of activists in the Balochistan region. She was, in return, silenced herself.

Mahmud was the director and creator of The Second Floor in Karachi, a community space for open dialogue, where the talk had just taken place.

In the wake of her death local media and fellow activists have been voicing their support of the outspoken organizer, who was just 40 at the time of her death. “She was a pillar of support to all the voiceless people and her death is a huge loss for Pakistan,” said one local media report. Reactions to her assassination on social media have been unequivocal, saying “a liberal and moderate voice silenced… Another sign that freedom of speech in Pakistan is now gone…. An extraordinary Pakistani fighting for open dialogue shot dead in Karachi… The end of civilization... Even as we grieve our friend, we refuse to be silenced.”

At a moment when civil society activists and intellectuals are being threatened and silenced in Pakistan, one can’t help but think of the support Canada provided for those voices over decades.

Canada was the first country to boldly step forward and put a substantive amount of grant assistance towards the strengthening of civil society in Pakistan. Although it might not be well known, Canada’s legacy in support of democracy and governance through building and strengthening of civil societies in Pakistan is undeniable.

2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the non-government organization Strengthening Participatory Organizations (SPO) in Pakistan, now the biggest rights-based capacity-building organization in Pakistan. SPO was created by Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency as a small project office and transformed into a major organization that fights for the rights of poor, marginalized people in Pakistan. This is but one example of Canada’s support over 20 years between 1990 and 2010 for a vibrant, rights-focused civil society in Pakistan.  Many of the organizations which received institutional funding from CIDA are at the forefront of the struggle for human rights, particularly women’s rights, children’s rights and improving democratic institutions and rule of law. Other countries have benefited from and taken over Canada’s role in supporting civil society. The UK is now supporting a consortium of the organizations that CIDA helped create, such as Aurat Foundation, SPO, South Asia Partnership Pakistan, Sungi Development Foundation, and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, all key CIDA partners during the 1990-2009 period.  Canada should take solace in the fact that the voices our country supported for so many years are now self-sustaining, supported by others and still trying to stem the wave of repression that is currently underway.

Ironically, over the past few years just as Canada decreased its funding to civil society in Pakistan, there has been a rise in the number of targeted attacks on rights’ activists and intellectual voices of reason. The space for liberty and freedom of speech in Pakistan is shrinking. The assassination of the rights activist Sabeen Mahmud has received significant international attention. All major media outlets, New York Times, CNN, BBC, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the New Yorker, Daily Beast and others have covered the story.

As we witness increasing violence against moderate and outspoken voices in Pakistan, it appears that the extremists are winning, and the gains made over the past 25 years are fading away. The investments of the international community to support a dynamic civil society and promote human rights in Pakistan, in which Canada led the way in the 1990s, is hopefully not going to be completely wasted; but what do we do to help today?

Now more than ever, civil society in Pakistan needs the support of the international community as the tide of religious extremism continues to swell and the forces of intolerance become bolder. If we want Pakistan to stand up to religious extremism, we need to stand with them.