Saturday September 25, 2021

Worsening rights

The annual report for the year 2019 by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) should serve as an eye-opener to those who fail to see the worsening situation of human rights in Pakistan. An important message from this report is that the most vulnerable segments of society are being neglected and their voices are not heard. This has made their presence invisible, though they are the ones who bear the brunt of most injustices in society. Released on April 30, the HRCP report highlights that the weakest segments of society have become victims of widespread economic marginalization. This is in addition to the social exploitation they face across the country. The report has also pointed out that the human rights record in Pakistan continued its downward slide in 2019 and the situation has become ‘worrisome’, especially in the face of the ongoing pandemic of Covid-19. The report warns us that the prospects for human rights in the country were already bleak when the current pandemic cast its shadow. It is definitely a cause of concern that HRCP has noticed ‘systematic curbs’ on political dissent. These curbs are imposed by a continued chokehold on press freedom. Apart from the curbs on media, there is also a persistent neglect of economic and social rights in the country.

This year, the HRCP report is more detailed and focused as it offers separate chapters on each province and other federating units that compose Pakistan. Among the issues highlighted by the report, child abuse and forced labour by underage youth figure prominently. There have been reports of child labourers being assaulted, raped, murdered, and dumped, without such incidents getting much attention in the mainstream media. Violence against women is another frighteningly common occurrence across the country. They become targets in the name of honour as Pakistani society becomes more and more fixated with the concept of damaged or lost honours of male relatives. Punjab has the disgraceful distinction of being at the top with the highest proportion of ‘honour’ crimes. The HRCP report has also underscored the miserable conditions of prisoners in overpopulated jails. As many journalists have reported, they find it difficult to criticize state policy, as the space for free expression on electronic, print, and social media has been eroded in an organized manner. This is also linked with a deliberate financial squeeze on the media which is being targeted and victimized in a selective manner. Another cause of continued concern is the case of persons reported to be ‘missing’.

The HRCP has rightly recommended that the government must legislate to criminalize enforced disappearances. Religious minorities have also seen freedom of religion being eroded by both non-state and state measures. There have been reports of desecration of worship places, forced conversions of young women, and a perpetual discrimination in access to employment. The report also calls for holding of local bodies elections in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Punjab; Sindh being the only province where local governments are functioning. The report’s suggestion for the restoration of student and trade unions is also noteworthy. The government must take these findings and recommendations seriously. The government must form a high-level parliamentary committee with representation from all major parties to look into the violations of human rights in the country. The federal ministry of human rights must play a proactive role in this matter and take on board the opposition members to explore and implement HRCP’s recommendations and draft the required legislation.