The state of rights

The HRCP seeks urgent reform to address the challenges on the rights landscape

The state of rights


conomic crisis, political instability, violations of absolute rights, bad governance, forced disappearances and torture deaths are some of the themes highlighted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in its annual report for 2023. Reflecting on the circumstances in 2023, the report noted that Pakistan faced severe economic hardships, with nearly 40 percent inflation that impacted millions of its citizens. Economic justice became a key focus. There was a lot of advocacy for living wages, housing, education, healthcare and social security. It emphasised that political turmoil following the arrest of the former prime minister, Imran Khan, led to widespread riots and a police crackdown. The government’s response included mass arrests, military trials, enforced disappearances and suppression of political dissent.

Highlighting the rights landscape regionally, the report said the Punjab in particular saw significant political and civil unrest, with numerous police encounters, mob violence against Christians in Jaranwala and attacks on Ahmadiyya worship sites. Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan experienced high levels of terrorism and militant violence, with a significant number of fatalities. Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances remained prevalent in these regions too. Islamabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan continued to face political tensions and human rights abuses similar to the provinces.

The violations included severe restrictions on media and public gatherings, with bans on political speeches and internet shutdowns. There were increased attacks on religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis. Forced conversions and blasphemy charges were also reported.

Violence against women, including ‘honour’ crimes, rape and domestic violence, were widespread. Cyber harassment was also a significant issue. High incidence of child abuse and child labour, with numerous cases of corporal punishment and forced marriages were reported. In what many saw as a setback, the Federal Shariat Court ruled parts of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act as un-Islamic.

The report noted that the rights system lacked focus on the struggles of vulnerable labour groups. The health sector, too, remained underfunded, with significant challenges due to inflation and natural disasters. There was a high number of out-of-school children and deteriorating conditions in schools affected by floods.

With regards to governance and legislation, the report said that there was a large number of pending cases in courts. IT also said controversial rulings had affected political and civil rights. Some of new laws were passed in haste. Some of those curbed freedoms and granted broad powers to intelligence agencies. There were many unresolved cases of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings allegedly by state agencies, especially in Sindh and Balochistan.

The rights situation in Pakistan has remained turbulent for nearly three decades now. Democratic governance is at stake and political turmoil has been increasing. During previous periods of high inflation, ordinary Pakistanis have experienced increased costs for basic necessities, such as food and fuel, leading to reduced purchasing power and widespread economic hardship.

The political unrest following Imran Khan’s arrest mirrored previous incidents of political violence in Pakistan, such as the 2007 riots after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, highlighting the state’s aggressive response to political dissent. Instances like the enforced disappearance of journalists Hamid Mir and Matiullah Jan exemplify the state’s suppression of media freedom. The 2013 attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar and the forced conversions in Sindh illustrate ongoing religious persecution.

The state of rights

The report noted that the rights system remained lacking in focus on the struggles of vulnerable labour groups. The health sector also remained underfunded, with significant challenges due to inflation and natural disasters.

The 2016 Qandeel Baloch ‘honour’ killing case and ongoing issues of domestic violence, as highlighted by the Aurat March, accentuate the persistent threat to women’s safety. Reports of children working in hazardous conditions in brick kilns and carpet weaving industries reflect the widespread issue of child labour. Incidents of violence against transgender individuals, such as the 2018 murder of activist Julie Khan, highlight the community’s vulnerability.Cases like that of activist Idris Khattak and extrajudicial killings in Balochistan illustrate the ongoing issue of state violence and lack of accountability.

The country’s rights landscape needs urgent reform and accountability. The situation continued to deteriorate this year.

The electoral landscape was blatantly manipulated, with one political party being singled out for systematic dismemberment. Some state institutions continue to act in a recognisable pattern. This includes the arrest of political party workers and supporters; the lack of transparency regarding the charges involved; the denial of the right to peaceful assembly; enforced disappearances; the pressure on party leaders to resign or exit politics altogether; and a large-scale rejection of electoral nominations.

Last year, several state and non-state actors resumed their attacks against the rights of vulnerable groups. Blasphemy allegations were brought about against religious minorities and Christian and Ahmadiyya worship sites were attacked. In August 2023, a number of churches in Jaranwala were desecrated. These incidents have left these communities fearful for their lives and livelihoods, as well as their right to profess and practice their faith. The Christian community’s request for an inquiry by a judicial commission into the Jaranwala tragedy must be respected, and all victims must be compensated equitably.

The mass expulsion of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers without regard for their safety in their country of origin endangered numerous women, children, elderly and disabled Afghan nationals.

The state of law and order, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is a cause for serious concern. The state must prevent militants from gaining strength through opaque covert negotiations. Furthermore, the merger and mainstreaming of the former FATA is a significant accomplishment that must not be undone. The state’s restriction of civic spaces in the country, whether in the form of freedom of opinion, expression or assembly, has further restricted civic spaces. The crackdown on Baloch women protestors demanding an end to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings was unfortunate.

There is a dire need to implement policies to control inflation and ensure economic stability as well as to strengthen social safety nets to support vulnerable populations. There is a need for promotion of dialogue and reconciliation among political parties in order to ensure fair and transparent elections. Freedom of expression needs to be upheld and there is need for added protection for journalists and activists. There is also an increasing need for a rethink on enforcement of laws against religious discrimination and protection of minority rights as well as a strengthening of laws and policies against gender-based violence. Similar reforms regarding children’s rights, transgender rights and labour rights need to be formulated. Enforced disappearances need to be addressed by holding state agencies accountable and implementing measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and ensure justice for victims.

The writer is the CEO at ZAK Casa and Verde as well as a managing partner at a law firm, namely Lex Mercatoria

The state of rights