In February 2016, Pakistan articulated a renewed resolve to honour its obligations under international law. To that end, the state notified the country’s first National Action Plan for the Improvement of Human Rights in Pakistan.
The road map aimed to resolve the continuing disconnect between domestic legal frameworks and international treaty obligations by providing for the immediate enactment of laws that have long struggled to pave their way through parliament. These included the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment Act and the National Commission on the Rights of Children Bill.
The notification of the policy was strategic as the country prepared to appear before the UN in a series of reviews this year regarding its human rights record. These included the review under the UN Convention against Torture in April, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in July and finally under the Universal Periodic Review in November.
In 2010, the government of Pakistan willingly ratified the above mentioned treaties and like fellow UN member states agreed to be bound under its dictates. As parties to the respective treaties, each country is given the opportunity to appear before the respective monitoring bodies every four years in an evaluation exercise regarding its progress under the treaty. During the review, committee members who are renowned human rights experts engage with government representatives to formulate a plan of reform for the next four years which is then published in the form of Concluding Observations.
As universal human rights standards remain largely aspirational in all countries of the world, the monitoring bodies are equally rigorous in their review of all countries. In January 2017, the Committee Against Torture (CAT) – the monitoring body of the torture convention – expressed its concern regarding the lengthy detention of remand prisoners in police detention facilities in Finland.
In June 2016, France was taken to task regarding allegations of the excessive use of force by police and the gendarmerie that led to serious injuries and deaths. The committee noted that a large number of complaints filed by victims against the French police were dismissed and in instances where action was taken, it failed to be proportionate to the seriousness of the abuse. The committee additionally chided France for its failure to protect vulnerable individuals, including Muslims, from criminal acts motivated by hatred.
Unsurprisingly, the CAT presented the government of Pakistan with a comprehensive list of questions when the parties participated in Pakistan’s first ever review in front of the committee. However, the committee also recognised the many positive steps taken by Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to cooperate with the international human rights mechanisms since ratifying the convention in 2010. In particular, the committee noted the following policy and legislative steps: the adoption of the National Action Plan on Human Rights 2016, the initiation of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) in 2015 and the passage of laws against honour killing and rape.
Nonetheless, the committee highlighted several areas of concern – as evidenced in the Concluding Observations published recently – regarding the common practice of the use of torture by the police to extract confessions for suspects in custody. It urged Pakistan to ensure that all police officers engaging in torture are prosecuted and penalised. The committee also pressed the government to establish an investigation mechanism, independent of the police, to receive complaints, investigate and address all allegations of torture.
One of the foremost concerns expressed by the committee during the public hearing was regarding the lack of a comprehensive definition and criminalisation of torture in Pakistani legal system. Two draft bills prohibiting and criminalising torture have been pending in parliament for over two years. The Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill was introduced by Senator Farhatullah Babar in the Senate in March 2015 and was passed by the upper house, however it was never debated in the National Assembly.
A similar bill, introduced by MNA Maiza Hameed in the lower house has also not been debated. The lack of the bill’s passage contradicts the government’s own promise (under the National Action Plan) to enact anti-torture legislation by July 2016. Therefore, under its Concluding Observations, the CAT asked the government of Pakistan to take the necessary measures to ensure the draft law’s compatibility with the convention and to enact it.
Armed with a roadmap for reform formulated by the UN expert Committee Against Torture, one hopes the government will continue the process it initiated with the notification of its National Action Plan on human rights. Pakistan has undertaken many efforts to secure a prominent place within the UN, and the passage of the anti-torture bill will help the government elevate its status internationally and become popular with the public at home.
The writer is a human rights lawyer.