War on rights

August 18, 2019

It is safe to assume that where there is concentrated power, there is more likelihood of abuse of rights

War on rights

A year may seem too short a time to judge a government’s performance but it is certainly long enough to gauge its direction. In Pakistan, where deep state appears larger than the elected government, whole five-year terms are often spent clarifying that the two work in tandem rather than at cross-purposes.

The question of people’s rights must be understood in the context of how power is wielded, or distributed, in a polity. This resides in the dynamics of power between the state and the government, and within Pakistan’s federal structure, in its devolution from the centre to provinces to local tiers.

It is safe to assume that where there is concentrated power, there is more likelihood of abuse of rights. Challenging abuse of power by mounting collective struggle against it is a human right. Hence, both the national and international normative systems recognise the rights to freedoms of expression, speech and association as a core part of the civil and political rights framework.

Since the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government assumed power a year ago, it has repeatedly stated that all national ‘institutions’ were on the same page, implying a neat break with the past. While some critics may see nothing new in it and even attribute the PTI’s electoral victory to this institutional closeness, it does make one year a decent enough time to judge the government’s performance in terms of protection of rights. With the state-government anomaly resolved, the new political dispensation is likely to stick to what it has already stated and reinforced on the completion of its hundred days in office.

It was, however, after one month of assuming office that the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote a letter to the newly elected prime minister, drawing his attention to "serious" human rights challenges. The six areas he identified as needing attention were: freedom of expression and attacks on civil society; freedom of religion and belief; violence against women and girls; access to education; restoring the moratorium on death penalty; and terrorism and counter-terrorism abuses. Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari did not take the criticism too kindly and rebuked the HRW for unnecessarily and selectively meddling in the affairs of a country that was completely mindful of its obligations.

Did she set the tone for the rights regime under the PTI’s ward for the next five years? To be fair, Dr Mazari has raised some of the right noises. Apart from issuing a laudatory report on her ministry’s 100 day performance, in November 2018, she suggested that the prime minister sign the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, and stated that the PTI was "committed to ending enforced disappearances". About the convention itself, she wanted it signed with reservations over three clauses which did not suit Pakistan. She was said to be referring to Section 26 of the convention, which allows a United Nations body to conduct surprise visits to check for missing persons.

The PTI government’s same-page mantra may have something to do with the sorry state of media freedoms becoming sorrier over the last year.

In January, she said, her ministry had drafted a bill, amending the Pakistan Penal Code to declare enforced disappearances a criminal offence and sent it to the law ministry. None of these objectives have been achieved. Claims of the 100-day-performance-report notwithstanding, there has been only one law passed in the past year, and that is the Child Protection Bill. It began as Zainab Alert Bill after the tragic death of the little girl in Kasur months before PTI assumed power. This law too is applicable only in the capital territory.

Talking of right noises, Prime Minister Imran Khan did just that when he offered citizenship to Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The overarching state, domestic and regional political compulsions forced him to backtrack and make an alternative concession -- that they could open bank accounts instead.

There is a sense that Pakistan is more willing to fulfil its international obligations because it often has trade and other economic constraints that require it to meet certain conditionalities. Its recent crackdown on militant organisations too is seen in this light. The fact remains that there aren’t any major conventions that Pakistan has ratified this year.

When it comes to converting international conventions into domestic legislation, apart from enforced disappearances, enacting a sound anti-torture law remains a major concern. The Senate had passed a Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape Act in 2015 (tabled by Senator Farhatullah Babar) but it was not passed by the National Assembly till its dissolution when the bill lapsed. It offered a more comprehensive definition of torture, and it was a huge improvement on the existing legislation.

As torture by state agents against those in custody and at large continues, the government hasn’t uttered a word about going in that direction.

The solidarity shown to women, children, minorities and transgenders by government functionaries is mere tokenism while the real rights -- such as right to food, clean water, sanitation, education, and healthcare -- remain a far cry for a majority of the people. It may be unfair to place these nearly permanent weaknesses at the current government’s doorstep, but the direction is as unclear as before and priorities as warped.

Given the situation, how the government runs the economy, too, becomes a rights project. Also, the accountability overdrive cares little about recognised legal rights like due process, fair trial and dignity.

Also read: The economy in reverse

As stated in the beginning, holding those in power to account is a human right. Both the common man and journalists can do that through exercise of right to free speech, right to associate and the largely untested right to information. All this seems harder today. The space for expression has shrunk and is allowed to squeeze constantly. The PTI government’s same-page mantra may have something to do with the sorry state of media freedoms becoming sorrier in this one year.

When Murad Saeed, a minister, stood up in the National Assembly in May this year, held a copy of the constitution in his hand and read out the "reasonable restrictions" in Article 19 and charged MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir from Waziristan with violating the constitution, he was only pointing out the shrinking space for human rights in this country under his government.

This is not the first government that criminalises its citizens’ protest for their rights, under anti-terrorism laws, by declaring them traitors. Will it become the last government that tries not to?

War on rights