Supporters of a civil society organization hold a demonstration to protest against the killing of coal mine workers by gunmen near the Machh coal field, in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 8, 2021. Pakistan's prime minister Friday appealed to the protesting minorit

UN rapporteur emphasizes responsibility to protect ‘vulnerable’ Hazaras

The World’s Shirin Jaafari interviewed Fernand de Varennes, UN special rapporteur on minority issues, about the plight of the Hazara people.

The World

Supporters of a civil society organization hold a demonstration to protest against the killing of coal mine workers by gunmen near the Machh coal field, in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 8, 2021. Pakistan's prime minister Friday appealed to the protesting minority Shiites not to link the burial of coal miners from the Hazara community who were killed by ISIS to his visit to the mourners, saying such a demand amounted to blackmailing the country's premier.

K.M. Chaudary/AP 

In early January, at least 10 coal miners were brutally killed in southwestern Pakistan.

Witnesses and local security officials said the victims were specifically selected because of their ethnic and religious background. They belonged to a minority group called the Hazaras.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack.

The incident shocked the community, who say they have been targeted by Sunni extremist groups for years. They say they demand justice and an end to the persecutions.

Related: Hazara community demands justice for slain coal miners in Pakistan

The World’s Shirin Jaafari interviewed Fernand de Varennes, UN special rapporteur on minority issues, to ask about the plight of the Hazara people.

Shirin Jaafari: What is your assessment of the condition of the Hazara communities in different parts of the world? There are communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Fernand de Varennes: It's difficult for me to answer directly in the sense that I have had no allegations, letters of allegations, in fact, involving the Hazara minority either in Pakistan, Afghanistan or even Iran. In other words, usually as the special rapporteur, as an independent expert with the United Nations, we respond to and we examine more closely situations where we have received allegations of violations of the human rights of different groups, in my case, minorities. 

And until now, it seems from the information that I have been able to assess that no member of the Hazara minority has sent directly any letter of allegation to my mandate. All of that to say, I do have some background information which I have obtained from various sources, but I actually don't have any in-depth appreciation or understanding of the situation there because my mandate has actually never been asked to intervene at this point.

(Editor’s note:Since this Jan. 16 interview, The World has relayed messages from The World Hazara Council and the Canadian Hazara Humanitarian Services to the special rapporteur.)

A group of miners was killed in Pakistan earlier this month, and ISIS claimed responsibility. In the past, ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups have stated that they target the Hazara communities because of their background, religion and ethnicity. What can be done from your standpoint?

I am aware of a number of situations, including the most recent one, the horrific murder of, I think, 11 miners in Pakistan who were of Hazara background and Shiites. It is clear that the Hazara are being targeted by extremist elements, if you will, such as ISIS, as you mentioned. More recently, there have been, to my knowledge, other incidents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in particular. And this is deeply concerning.

I am concerned that while, very clearly, my own mandate could possibly play a role, I think the United Nations organization itself, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has an important role to play here. And I'm hoping that we will be approached by organizations or individuals of the Hazara community in relation to these incidents.

Why does the community need to reach out to you, specifically, and what happens once you receive those allegations?

It has to be understood that as the special rapporteur or independent experts, we have a mandate from the United Nations. And the mandate that we have is a special report. There is a procedure to look into allegations of violations of human rights. But it is a procedure where we are reactive. We have to usually react to allegations. And so, we have to receive allegations of violations of these human rights.

In the case of the procedure of a mechanism under a special rapporteur, essentially, what we do is once we receive an allegation of violations of human rights, we prepare a diplomatic note, which is sent to the permanent mission, the embassy, if you will, of the government involved in Geneva. And we express our concern, and we ask for the government to clarify what has occurred, what is occurring.

We can issue an international press release expressing our concerns around a certain situation and we can bring this to the attention of the Human Rights Council in our annual report. We can also perhaps be in some cases a little bit more proactive and insist on knowing what the government has done in relation to a situation. But let me be clear. The special rapporteurs can exercise a bit of pressure, if you will, but there are other human rights entities at the United Nations that should be considered and approached.

I have talked to individuals in the Hazara community who expressed deep concerns about the Taliban. The group has carried out atrocities against Hazaras in the past, and those atrocities have been documented by human rights groups. What is your response to those concerns?

As a humanitarian, you know, somebody who has studied these things in the past, I'm going to answer in a general way because I'm not up-to-date necessarily with all of the details of the negotiations going on. I think in any situation where there is a peace agreement being negotiated, one of the groups that tend to be forgotten sometimes are minorities. And minorities are particularly vulnerable in situations of conflict. Once again, without judging on what is occurring in Afghanistan, I don't have access to the details to comment. I think that in any country which is coming out of conflict, where ethnicity or religion plays a role, it is extremely important.

And I cannot emphasize this point sufficiently. It is extremely important that all the parties involved in the peace negotiations keep in mind the need to protect some of the most vulnerable communities.

If allegations from the communities do reach you, how would you approach the governments and also the different actors in the region, for example, the Taliban?

The way that we have to proceed because we do have a rather strict mandate, if you will, from the United Nations, is that we would approach the government of Afghanistan expressing our concerns in relation to the allegations of breaches, violations that have occurred. So in other words, a bit of diplomatic pressure pointing out that we have received allegations which are taken seriously.

There might be something else in relation to the point that you made in relation to peace agreements; it might be possible to request the special rapporteur to raise the issue of the protection of the Hazara or any other minorities in any future peace agreement or power-sharing agreement. But someone has to approach my mandate and suggest that as special rapporteur, I should probably intervene publicly in the sense of issuing a press release, raising these concerns and also raising the point with the Afghan government.

Back to the attack in Pakistan earlier this month. The government has increased security by putting armed guards and checkpoints at the entrances of Hazara neighborhoods. On the surface, that might sound like a good idea but one activist told me those measures have severely restricted the community’s movements and have led to the “ghettoization” of the community. How do you see these measures?

I would suggest that what is important or the very first step that needs to be taken in any situation where you have murders, assassinations of individuals belonging to a minority is to prosecute and penalize the offenders. You do not isolate, you do not simply put into a closed environment the victims. You need to actually be extremely proactive in identifying and punishing those who are responsible for violations of the rights, including physical violence and even murders or assassinations. This is the way that you ensure the security, the safety and the respect for the human rights of the victims.

So I think once again, without entering into a judgment of the various measures taken by the Pakistan government, essentially, what you need to do is provide a safe and inclusive environment for all individuals who reside in Pakistan. And you do not just try to isolate completely a group from the rest of society, because in a way, that is conceding that those who are committing atrocities can continue to live normal lives, whereas the victims cannot.

Any final point you would like to add?

I think it is important to realize and to make clear and to raise awareness that the treatment of the Hazara is not just atrocities. These are atrocities where you have a group, a minority that is targeted. And minorities are quite often the most vulnerable, even their own governments, sometimes, unfortunately, do not protect them as much as they should. History is full of situations where the minorities are the targets of genocide and atrocities. We can think about the Second World War and the Holocaust in relation to the Jews and the Roma and other minorities.

This situation that is occurring would be, in my opinion, an extremely important area where the United Nations and other human rights organizations should, as a priority, come up and actually raise these matters directly with the authorities involved, because as minorities, the Hazara and other minorities are, well, pretty much defenseless. And if there is one area where human rights and the United Nations and other organizations are supposed to be active and involved, it is to defend those who cannot defend themselves. And to me, that's why the Hazara are a minority where we have to play a much greater role.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.