These remarks were delivered at the 62nd Annual Conference in November, 2008.
Michael Ryan: Ladies and gentlemen, we have another very happy event. It is my happy duty to – I am a scene setter and I move the action – to present the Middle East Institute’s Special Award to Aitzaz Ahsan in recognition of his courage in defending the rule of law in Pakistan. But I am not going to do the introduction. Presenting this award is one of our most revered members of the MEI Board of Governors, Judge William Webster. In addition to being on MEI’s Board he is a senior partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy here in Washington. Of course we all know him better for his previous work in directing and having oversight over all the United States’ intelligence efforts and as a director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Judge Webster has received numerous awards himself, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the American Bar Association Medal, its highest award, to mention only two in a long list. In consideration of the award he will be presenting tonight, I think it is important to point out that Judge Webster himself has been listed in the “Best Lawyers of America” and I think that is most appropriate given the nature of the award that we are going to be giving tonight. Judge Webster, if you could come forward and make the introduction and present the award.
Judge William Webster: Thank you very much, Mike. Ladies and gentlemen, friends of the Middle East Institute, I am delighted to have this special honor tonight of presenting the Middle East Institute’s Award to Aitzaz Ahsan in recognition of his courage in defending the rule of law in Pakistan. As one who has travelled a number of times to Pakistan during the Cold War and as a lawyer and former judge, this award is especially meaningful to me. So is our recognition of Mr. Ahsan’s struggles and determination against all odds to protect the basic freedoms that we all cherish here.
I am sure you all remember reading the news reports about Aitzaz Ahsan. Last spring Aitzaz led thousands of lawyers and pro-democracy activists across Pakistan to demonstrate against then President Musharraf’s dismissal of the Supreme Court chief justice and later the entire Supreme Court. Aitzaz was arrested shortly after Musharraf suspended the constitution and incarcerated. Read more than thirty US senators wrote to Pakistan’s leader urging his release. Aitzaz Ahsan’s actions were both bold and courageous in keeping with his core principles. After all, political activism is not new to him or his family. His mother was among a group of activists arrested in 1946 for protesting against a British administrator in what was then India.
Law is Aitzaz Ahsan’s profession. He is a barrister and a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of Pakistan but he is also a writer, human rights activist and politician. He founded Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission. He has served as a federal minister for law and justice, interior, narcotics control and education. He was elected to the Senate of Pakistan in 1994 and eventually became the leader of the House and the leader of the opposition from 1996-1999. He is currently president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.
Please join me in saluting Aitzaz Ahsan for his courage in defending the rule of law in Pakistan.
Aitzaz Ahsan: I thank you, Judge Webster, for this great honor you have done me. I quite understand why Wendy has not been able to come to the rostrum. We wish her well. She has great places to go to and this might be one of the minor ones considering the kind of responsibilities she has now to shoulder. I am certainly overwhelmed by this award and the distinguished gathering that I have before me. If you look at the program it had timings for speeches for everybody but none for mine, so you are in for a long one here.
But I will just say thank you very much and thank you on behalf of not just myself but the ‘black coats’ of Pakistan. We have struggled through scorching midsummer sun; through cold, wintry, below-freezing nights on the streets of Pakistan. We have faced the baton and the bullet. We have faced the gas and the guns. But we have marched on. Recall Lithuania in 1987. The Soviet tanks moved in and the Lithuanians just sang their songs. The tanks rolled over people and the Lithuanians continued to sing their songs. The tanks moved in onto the squares, into the streets, into the marketplaces, and the Lithuanians continued to sing their songs.
In the Muslim world there has been no movement like the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan, a peaceful, non-violent, hugely popular, progressive, modernist, tolerant and above all a plural movement, seeking the restoration of the independent and fearless judges of the country who were removed by a dictator and who unfortunately an elected parliament refuses to restore.
I will leave you only with one thought because I have a slot, as this book will tell you, for tomorrow morning to expound further on that. But in an environment where change is being spelled – the only word in the Oxford Dictionary that is being spelled in caps all together – in an environment where the scent and fragrance of change is all around us – in that environment, I just want you to ponder the fact that no war has ever been won in any country by any people who have been deprived of enforceable rights. Rights will be enforced only by independent and fearless judges. Without the independent and fearless judges, you are losing the war on terror. I hope and pray to God that this air and environment of change does bring about a profound and complete change from the policies that we have pursued in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in that region where a war is being fought but the affection and support of the people is being lost. We want to win the war but without the support of the people we cannot win the war. Without empowering people with enforceable rights we cannot win the war.
The British war prime minister, Churchill, famously said during the Battle of Britain that if Britain had her judges and judiciary functioning and independent it cannot lose the war. I will dwell at greater length on this theme tomorrow, at 9 AM tomorrow morning. Thank you very much.