Since we are human

September 22, 2019

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.There are not many international organizations in Pakistan that work on human rights. Mostly they work on service...

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The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

There are not many international organizations in Pakistan that work on human rights. Mostly they work on service delivery areas such as in health and education sectors or in water and sanitation.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) is an unusually dedicated organization that supports advocacy work promoting citizen and civic education, particularly in the areas of democracy and human rights. So it was a pleasant experience to attend a workshop on Pakistan’s International Legal Obligations organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and supported by the FNF in Islamabad recently.

The resource book is a treasure trove of information developed by a young PhD in human rights, Adnan Sattar, who was associated with The News in the 1990s and is now a faculty member at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Kamran Arif who delivered the workshop is himself a teacher of international law and currently vice-chairman of the HRCP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some of the ideas discussed in the workshop and contained in the resource book are worth sharing with a wider audience and readership. It will be a good idea if the book is also translated into Urdu.

It will not be an overstatement to say that in Pakistan even journalists and lawyers lack basic understanding of human rights. This is perhaps due to poor coverage of human rights in legal and mass-communication studies. Some civil society organizations make it a point to orient their staff about these matters, but now the HRCP has taken upon itself with the help from FNF to organize workshops for NGO workers, human rights defenders, journalists, and even government officials. First, it is important to identify the main international institutions for the protection of human rights.

There are certain charter-based bodies such as Human Rights Council (previously Commission on Human Rights) and Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Then there are special procedures of the Human Rights Council such as its complaints procedures. Similarly important is the awareness of the core human rights treaties to which Pakistan is a signatory, especially those relating to the protection of women, children, and minorities – in Pakistan’s case mostly non-Muslims. There are at least nine core international human rights treaties such as the most recent one on enforced disappearances which took force in December 2010 and which Pakistan has not signed.

Understanding Pakistan’s performance regarding international human rights instruments such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) requires some interest and willingness on the part of the concerned people. The same applies to regional instruments such as the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, all UN members have ratified at least one of the nine core treaties. Interestingly, 80 percent of the UN member states have ratified four or more international human rights treaties, such as International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which Pakistan ratified in 1966.

The same year Pakistan also signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But as we can judge from the recent directives of the KP government forcing girl students to fully cover themselves, the discrimination still prevails. The directive was soon rescinded but it reflects the nature of discrimination against women still prevalent in society even if Pakistan signed CEDAW more than half a century ago in 1966. The same applies to the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) that Pakistan ratified in 1990.

To get a better grip on these issues, our civil society activists – including journalists and lawyers – need to examine the nature and scope of Pakistan’ international legal obligations such as those under the International Labour Organization (ILO) as the only tripartite UN agency. Discrimination against children and women is the most rampant in the labour market of Pakistan. Women are paid much less; exploited and maltreated at the whim of the employers; and in many cases can be dismissed or fired without compensation if they refuse the advances of their seniors or supervisors.

The treatment meted out to children is an everyday occurrence that we witness on roadside cafes and mechanics’ shops. Even in Islamabad, you see children as young as four or five years old even past midnight trying to sell flowers and pens with a stream of desires in their eyes, knocking at the windows of cars at traffic signals, while most of the travelers not even paying attention to them. What use is the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child if its basic tenets are being violated on the roads on Pakistan’s capital, what to talk about other cities?

Understanding the details of the UPR mechanism of the Human Rights Council is another important area that needs our attention at least for the ones who belong to the legal community or the media fraternity. The UPR mechanism has certain stages through which the process passes. Pakistan received specific recommendations at its third UPR Cycle. For this purpose, 2018 was a significant year for Pakistan, especially for assessment of Pakistan’s human rights commitments and compliance with treaty obligations. In March 2018, the UNHRC adopted the outcomes of Pakistan’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

UN Special Procedures including Pakistan’s interaction with these mechanisms is also important. These procedures can be an independent individual expert or a working group, who are prominent and work on a voluntary basis, mostly appointed by the Human Rights Council. These procedures can monitor, advise, and publicly report on the HR situation in specific countries or territories. These mechanisms mostly alert the international community to certain human rights issues, as they can address situations in all parts of the world without the requirement for countries to have ratified a human rights instrument.

The activities and functions that form the core of the UN human rights treaty bodies need closer and in-depth examination without which Pakistan’s legal obligations cannot be clearly understood. The same applies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that also intersect with human rights in the context of Pakistan. Some of these must be translated into legislation and policy. These SDGs pose challenges and also entail opportunities, but both challenges and opportunities are strongly tied with the human rights situation in the country. That means just by talking about SDGs and holding conferences and seminars about them will not help.

During the past 70 years the world has progressed a lot in terms of human rights and international law. Now no state can hide behind the veil of sovereignty; the principle which used be sacrosanct, is no more absolute. Now states cannot treat individuals whimsically. Even within their jurisdiction certain human rights are to be respected, if those states want to be counted as civilized members in the comity of nations.

In the past it was not the business of the international community to pass judgement on others, but now the situation has changed especially with respect to human rights. If a state discriminates against women, children, minorities, and labourers, there is an active machinery that works internationally and raises its voice.

Now human rights are an integral part of international law and no brutalities go unnoticed irrespective of who commits them from America to Australia or from Gilgit to Gwadar. Pakistan has still not ratified two important conventions: the International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (briefly called the International Convention on Migrant Workers or ICMW) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (briefly called International Convention for Enforced Disappearances or ICED). It’s about time we did that.


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