Unchanged realities

May 17, 2020

In its recently published annual report on the state of human rights in Pakistan, the HRCP has been unflinching in its analysis of the State’s failure to protect citizens’ constitutional rights

For year after year, decade after decade, life has been grim, sometimes unbearably grim, for the people of the country. This is especially true of the most vulnerable amongst them: women, children, prisoners, minority groups and others.

This year too, in its report for 2019, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has highlighted the issues that people face and the failures to protect basic rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution of Pakistan.

As usual, the HRCP has been unflinching in its analysis of the situation and the failure by the State to ensure rights-based legislation that can be enforced and setting up of institutions potentially able to play a part in this regard. While from time to time the State does react to isolated incidents, especially when public outrage is provoked, there is sadly very little attempt to bring about the systemic change we so badly need. The National Commission for Human Rights, the government body responsible for protecting the rights of people, has been dysfunctional for at least a year. Even earlier, it had been mostly inactive.

The report for 2019 also warns that the Covid-19 crisis being faced by the world will worsen the situation for the weakest members of society who are least able to protect themselves. Pakistan’s record on human rights has been categorised as extremely worrying by speakers at the launching ceremony of the report and the report itself, divided into a number of comprehensive sections, notes that Pakistan has been unable to protect people most in need of help, including children. It states there have been findings that child miners, who according to international covenants signed by the country should not be working in this dangerous sector at all, have been sexually abused in Balochistan’s mines. Reports of child rape and murder continue to come in alarmingly frequently. In many countries this would have provoked stronger government action. At least 2,846 cases of child abuse were documented by the HRCP which has also noted that despite laws to protect and promote the rights of women, honour killings remained high, with the Punjab recording the highest number of such crimes. These were often committed by the family members of these women. Women also faced discrimination in employment, political representation and access to connectivity in education.

The report also notes that Pakistan’s badly overcrowded jails failed to offer any safety to prisoners housed there, often in appalling conditions.

The report also notes that Pakistan’s badly overcrowded jails failed to offer any safety to prisoners housed there, often in appalling conditions. While there was some improvement in the terrorist attacks that have killed thousands in the recent decades, 1,444 people were still killed in cases of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Millions of cases remain pending before courts, making it impossible for people to gain access to justice.

The HRCP was also vocal in its condemnation of new restrictions on the right to free expression, the pressures placed on media houses, the loss of jobs in the industry and of other means used to coerce the press into steering away from dissent. The methods used such as placing curbs on advertising or the release of advertising revenue were not dissimilar to those used by autocratic setups in the past.

There was no progress on uncovering the location of those who had ‘disappeared’ and religious minorities were unable to benefit from the guarantee of freedom of belief granted to them under the Constitution. The forced conversion of young Hindu women was one example of this. There were others, including the desecration of places of worship.

Various violations of the Constitution continued and the report carries separate sections on each of the provinces and territories administered by Pakistan to ensure coverage of each of them. It should be noted that in the national media, we hear very little about Balochistan and about other parts of the country which do not fall in what is considered the mainstream. The issue of how Parliament was used and its success in legislating for the benefit of people is also discussed in the comprehensive report.

The report discusses the often-overlooked issue of the death penalty, noting that in 2019 584 people were sentenced to death and 15 people were executed. This puts Pakistan on a different path to a majority of countries in the world, which are moving away from the death penalty, and recognizing that it does not help curb the rate of crime. The use of the ECL to curb free movement was also commented on, as was the politicization of this list. The ban of dozens of labour unions infringed upon the right to association and worsened the plight of labourers, who are already poorly protected with little efforts to ensure safety laws and other regulations are followed at factories and workplaces.

This year, possibly for the first time since the HRCP began putting out its detailed documentation of rights in the country, some two decades ago, Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights reacted to the report in a statement. It said that the HRCP had brought up some pertinent issues but ignored steps taken by the government such as legislation, including the Zainab Alert, a response and recovery Act. The HRCP has welcomed this response while standing by its own position and said that the Ministry’s willingness to acknowledge the report and the abuse of rights in the country has opened up space for dialogue. We hope that the HRCP report can lead to such a dialogue opening up with the government and other organisations. However, there can only be limited optimism given the overall condition of human rights in the country, the multiple reports of violations that continue to come in and the fact that while there has been a huge growth in awareness of human rights issues, there have only been limited improvements in various sectors, even in cases where legislation has been put in place. This of course is due to extremely poor enforcement and a lack of willingness on the part of administration to move ahead with measures advocated by assemblies.

The writer is a freelance columnist and a former newspaper editor

State of Human Rights in 2019 in Pakistan