A bleak rights picture

December 26, 2021

The pace at which the human rights situation in Pakistan has deteriorated this year poses grave concerns

A bleak rights picture

As year-end reviews for the state of human rights in Pakistan go, the year 2021 does not look any different. The pace at which the situation in Pakistan has deteriorated this year is worrying.

The news cycles this year reported a relentless barrage of rights violations — ‘honour’ killings, sexual violence, mob violence and the like. Given the heights media censorship reached, the reporting still fell short of uncovering the full extent of the situation. Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and the growing influence of extremist groups continued to be underreported. This was particularly true of incidences occurring in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Restrictions on press freedom, with penalties ranging from job losses to abductions and attempted target killings (facts that prominent journalists have testified to), represented only the tip of the iceberg.

Monitoring by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan indicated the following trends in the worsening state of human rights for the year 2021:

Economic deprivation

This year saw economic deprivation increase at an unprecedented scale. Runaway inflation and price hikes were accompanied by shortages of food, gas and electricity. People all over the country came out in droves to protest against this. Teachers and government employees also voiced their outrage. Their financial woes were further exacerbated by layoffs and non-payment of salaries. Alarmingly, this economic crisis has also pushed many people to take their own lives out of desperation. While political parties have highlighted economic disenfranchisement in public rallies, it remains to be seen whether those at the bottom rung, such as daily-wagers, will see any improvement in their financial circumstances.

Urban displacement

The enforced homelessness of various low-income groups — such as farmers from villages along the Ravi River, or residents of Gujjar Nullah and Orangi Nullah — was a prominent feature of 2021. The evictions were also highlighted at the recent People’s Climate March where participants demanded justice for indigenous people dispossessed of their livelihoods due to the government’s mismanagement of the climate crisis.

It is important to note that the biggest and most aggressively pervasive development project in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is currently being challenged by a social movement in Gwadar, where hundreds of thousands are vociferously opposing the way in which their circumstances have changed drastically as a result of government’s priorities.

Excesses by law enforcement agencies

Police brutality reached new lows in 2021. Several incidents were reported of police officials resorting to violence against protestors — be they student activists, doctors or religious minorities. Peaceful protesters were subjected to baton charge, teargas, and other methods of breaking up violent mobs. Some incidents of extra-judicial killing by law enforcement agencies sparked outrage. These included the alleged murders of ten-year-old Ramiz Khalil in Kech, a student, Irfan Jatoi, in Sukkur, Usama Satti in Islamabad and some tribesmen in Jani Khel. Attempts were made to appease the protestors with promises of investigations and accountability. However, if the continued impunity with which enforced disappearances have taken place thus far is anything to go by, true accountability may require a systematic overhauling.

Gender-based violence

Violence against women and transgender persons reached a peak in 2021. The civil society sounded the alarm and called on the state and wider public to recognise that Pakistan has a femicide crisis. Saima, Noor, Quratulain, Silsila are only some of the names among countless victims of this crisis that shook public conscience. However, in an environment where state officials and judges blamed victims for rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, ‘honour’ killings and forced conversions and marriages, it is hardly surprising that gender-based violence continued unabated. Transgender persons continued to face rampant discrimination and violence, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Recently, the presence of an organised syndicate in Karachi known as beelas was highlighted in protests as well after this group attempted attacks on transgender persons.

Shrinking civic space

With provisions from the Anti-Terrorism Act and sedition laws being used to target human rights activists, journalists, political activists and students, and a new wave of religious extremism, it is no wonder that 2021 saw civic space for freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms shrink further. Space appeared to have been ceded to extremist forces, such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Their supporters occupied streets in mass protests on several occasions with little resistance from the state. Those arrested were released following negotiations with their leaders. This wave of extremism emboldened mob violence against suspected blasphemers, with crowds attacking a Hindu temple in Bhong Sharif, burning a police station in Charsadda and most recently lynching a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot.

While this overview of 2021 is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to probing the state of human rights in the country, these trends must be taken into grave consideration if the state wishes to usher in a truly progressive, pro-people and just Pakistan.

The writer is a project coordinator at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). She also works in HRCP’s research and communications team. The information in this article would not have been possible without the hard work of her associate, Ali Haider, who monitored press reports and social media for human rights violations at the HRCP

A bleak rights picture