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29 JUNE 2001
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Iqbal Masih’s life: A call to human rights vigilance

Timothy Ryan

Anyone who knew lqbal Masih, the 12-year-old boy assassinated this year [1995] in Lahore, Pakistan, by someone believed to be a feudal landlord and carpet manufacturer, was struck by his brilliance.

I don’t simply mean his intellectual abilities, though once rescued from slavery at a carpet loom this young activist demonstrated a tremendous aptitude for learning. Hew went through five years of school curriculum in three. Although, by the age of 12, malnutrition and abuse had left him physically smaller and more frail than my nine-year-old daughter, it was clear that his mind, his ambition, and his spirit burned brightly.

When I saw him the previous December in Karachi on his return from the United States, where he received a Reebok Human Rights Award, he was filled with the excitement of his first aeroplane ride, a new lnstamatic camera, his visit with other schoolchildren in Boston, and the unimaginable promise that one day he might attend a university. (Brandeis University had pledged to give a four-year scholarship to lqbal when he finished his studies in Pakistan.) Then someone motivated by greed, by fear, by hatred, pulled the trigger of a shotgun and obliterated this promise.

Risked life
I first met Iqbal in 1994 through my work with the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) as a representative of the AFL-CIO in South Asia. The BLLF has worked dauntlessly for years to free thousands of bonded and child labourers, lqbal among them. After working six years at a carpet loom, starting at the age of four, lqbal was rescued by the BLLF when he was 10. Iqbal’s rescue was due in no small part to his own guts. Last December he told me that one day two years ago, in the village where he was enslaved as a carpet weaver, he saw BLLF posters declaring that bonded and child labour was illegal under Pakistan law, and he secretly contacted BLLF activists. At the risk of his own life, lqbal led the BLLF to the carpet looms where they rescued hundreds of children, who might still be in slavery if not for his courage.

It seems medieval, and perhaps it is, but for years carpet manufacturers, brick kiln owners, landowners, and manufacturers of sporting goods and other products in Pakistan had maintained an unrelenting grip on bonded labourers and children. Some estimates run as high as 20 million bonded and child labourers. At least half a million children were employed in the carpet trade alone. Because of the tension between Islamic and Christian communities in Pakistan, some would say the killing of lqbal was a purely religious matter. On one level this is a mere smoke screen.

But on a more complex and sinister level, there is some connection between the fact that Iqbal was Christian and the fact that he was pressed into slavery in the first place. lqbal’s story has an economic and political subtext: Politicians and businessmen in Pakistan form a tight web of relationships based on kin, clan, and caste. They count on family members who occupy positions of authority in local, provincial, national and police bodies to look the other way when laws are violated, or, in many cases, to actively participate in crimes against workers and minorities.

Poverty is often the surface excuse for a problem with deeper roots. It’s a fallacy to see lqbal’s death solely as the result of brutal economics, rather than the outcome of broader, more pervasive violations of fundamental human rights.

On one level lqbal’s story is surely economic – poor people have less education, less income, less power than the rich. Even though it was outlawed in 1992 under Pakistan's Bonded Labour Abolition Act, the “advance" system that bonds people to their employers continues unabated. This system ensnared lqbal at the age of four. The BLLF has taken some cases to court, but police and employer intimidation, along with judges' unwillingness to enforce the law, had prevented any prosecutions under the 1992 law.

It’s at a deeper, generally hidden level that Iqbal’s tragedy intersects with millions of Pakistani citizens and helps to explain the oppressive social and cultural patterns that are partly responsible for his death. The fact is, most people who are bonded and enslaved are converted Muslims, indigenous tribal people, Hindus, and Christians – in short, anyone outside the mainstream of Sunni Islamic society. This insight reveals the intrinsic link between “economic" or “labour" issues and pervasive problems of intolerance and discrimination based on race, language, and ethnicity. So we’re not just talking here about poverty and economic hardship, or one brave little boy’s death. we’re talking about enslavement based on race and language and religion, about the treatment of human beings as commodities, as slave labour, and the slow grinding to death of people who not only are denied economic advancement, but also a chance at education, decent housing, clean water the things that make life livable.

lqbal’s death must have a greater meaning beyond the tragedy of a bright meteor snuffed out by greed and corruption. His experience implores us to look beyond “poverty" or “economic hardship" as an explanation of why so many men, women, and children in traditional societies are exploited “to see the rights of child workers and bonded workers as part of a continuum of overall human rights that must be defended at all costs.

Story originally published in The Christian Science Monitor

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