November 29, 2020

Pakistan should start respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for the sake of its citizens and not just under international pressure.

The Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) at the United Nations lists the duties and obligations of states — to respect, protect and fulfill human rights; ‘respect’ means that the states refrain from curtailing human rights, ‘protect’ means that they proactively ensure that their citizens do not suffer human rights abuses, ‘fulfill’ means that states take positive action so that their citizens enjoy their human rights.

Pakistan was among the original 48 countries that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It has a chapter on fundamental rights in its constitution, that pretty much covers the principles of universality and inalienability of human rights as understood internationally. There are statutes to protect human rights some of which predate the Constitution. As of today, it has a separate ministry of human rights. There are national commissions on human rights, status of women, minorities and children. There also is a functional and independent judiciary which is supposed to ensure that the fundamental rights are enforced and protected.

Why then is the country’s human rights record so dismal in terms of political and civil rights, the status of minorities, violence against women and so on?

Several military coups and long periods of military rule caused the fundamental rights to remain suspended for the most part. The contract between the state and the citizen has been violated so frequently that it has no sanctity or validity any longer.

Assurance and exercise of civil and political rights make it easier for people to attain social, cultural and economic rights. Most states have exceptions and limits to fundamental human rights; in our case, the citizens have been largely deprived of the rights in the name of ‘national security’, ‘people’s security’ and fear of terrorism. The social, cultural and economic rights have obviously suffered.

The judiciary, which is supposed to act as a protector of people’s fundamental rights, at one point overstretched the definition of Article 184 (3) of the Constitution and assumed suo motu powers. This often proved counterproductive and for the most part failed to help the common citizenry. Too often, the unaccountable intelligence agencies have too often resorted to enforced disappearance of dissenting voices; too often the police tackle a law and order situation using violence and try to curb crime through torture and extrajudicial killings. Against these violations, the judiciary seems helpless.

As the blasphemy laws were made more stringent, more cases began to be reported; the laws have been abused against both the Muslim majority and the religious minorities. Minorities are mistreated, discriminated against and actively persecuted. Instances of forced conversions are on the rise, as are cases of honour killing and violence against women in general. The latest addition to this ignominious list is the abuse and murder of children. By way of a solution, governments resort to more and more brutal punishments. Freedom of expression is in jeopardy, as are student and trade unions.

The state must put the interests of its people first and stop acting only under international pressure.