Human rights in Pakistan

By: Naazir Mahmood

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has been doing a marvelous job by compiling data on human rights violations in the country. For over 30 years now it has been releasing its annual reports detailing its observations about human rights and related issues in Pakistan.

The HRCP released its latest annual report ‘State of Human Rights in 2021’ on April 29 in Islamabad. It is dedicated to the memory of former chairperson of the HRCP, Dr Mehdi Hasan (1937-2022). In 2021, the HRCP lost four of its dynamic leaders: I A Rehman, Kamran Arif, Sindhu Mukesh, and Zaman Khan. They were the torchbearers of democracy and fundamental rights in Pakistan who devoted a greater part of their lives to the defense of human rights in the country. Their work also extended to other countries of the region where they promoted peace and harmony.

The HRCP is an independent watchdog of human rights and most of its activists and council members are working on a voluntary basis. For its extraordinary work, it has earned respect from national and international bodies and civil society organizations. Currently led by people such as Chairperson Hina Jilani, Co-chair Asa Iqbal Butt, Treasurer Hussain Naqi, Secretary-general Harris Khalique, and Director Farah Zia, the HRCP is conducting various fact-finding missions on specific issues. These missions do an in-depth analysis of a particular problem and then present their findings for public consumption.

One of the most significant concerns that the report highlights is about freedom of expression in Pakistan. Since the previous PTI government was one of the most repressive in terms of its intimidation of journalists, the report enumerates at least nine cases in which journalists faced intimidations or were silenced altogether. It was the most pressing issue of the year. If a government cannot protect freedom of expression – rather tries to curb it – it has a direct bearing on all other rights. Without freedom of expression, people remain unaware of what kind of persecution and suppression is prevailing in society.

In a country such as Pakistan, marginalized people find an outlet in free media so that their grievances can be heard and projected on a wider scale.

In 2021, the PTI government also curtailed freedoms of assembly and association and whenever journalists and media professionals tried to inform their audiences and readership about such violation, the government initiated a crackdown. Similarly, the PTI government also compromised parliamentary supremacy by disregarding democratic norms and constitutional provisions. Then there were numerous incidents of enforced disappearances and persistent police excesses that targeted dissenting voices. Dissenters remained an anathema to the government as it intensified its attacks on those who challenged it in any way. The same happened to marginalized segments of society that remained on the receiving end.

In a country such as Pakistan, marginalized people find an outlet in free media so that their grievances can be heard and projected on a wider scale. But the government of Pakistan in 2021 continued its censorship with both explicit and implicit tactics. That is one reason the HRCP report’s overarching theme is freedom of expression and it presented the Nisar Osmani Award for Courage in Journalism to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). The report dilates upon a wide spectrum of human rights violations with separate chapters on all administrative and federating units of Pakistan including the four provinces, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

There were some positive developments too such as the National Commission for Human Rights and National Commission on the Status of Women had new chairpersons appointed after a gap of several years. The key challenge as highlighted by the HRCP report is that these commissions must function to full capacity and with required financial autonomy. Many such commissions remain ineffective on these two counts; one, they do not have all staff positions filled; and two, they lack financial resources they need. These two factors hamper their operations, and they end up being idle or underperforming.

Interestingly, while some good and progressive laws were enacted at the federal capital and provincial levels, at the national level most of the laws –particularly regressive ones – the government bulldozed thorough presidential ordinances. Attempts were made to thwart laws on domestic violence and forced conversions. The Council of Islamic Ideology was one such institution that failed to play a progressive role in society. The government also glossed over violent protests that various religious groups kept staging and disrupted public life in many cities and towns. There was visible acquiescence by the government towards these conservative groups that managed to extract their desired agreements with the government.

In its regression, the Punjab Assembly led the pack with numerous resolutions that pushed for conservative legislation. In addition to Punjab, other provincial governments too repeatedly tried to keep local bodies in a state of limbo. After much legal haggling, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government managed to hold the first phase of local government elections and that too in the last month of the year.

The PTI-led conservative onslaught targeted the country’s education system too. Contrary to its pre-election promises of introducing a uniform education system with equal educational facilities and opportunities for all students and schools, the government opted for a highly controversial Single National Curriculum (SNC). In this regressive slide of the country that the federal government led, the government of Sindh resisted and did not accept the SNC.

The HRCP report also highlights an uptick in blasphemy allegations and violence against women. In 2021, Pakistan and the world was shocked to see the horrific lynching of a Sri Lankan national in Sialkot – once again blasphemy allegations becoming an international headline. Domestic violence was rampant with women facing harassment, honour crimes, rapes and torture. Violence against children and transgender community was also on the rise.

The government’s conservative agenda received a boost from the Taliban who captured Kabul in August 2021 and established their theocratic rule in Afghanistan. Millions of Afghan citizens were displaced.

Within Pakistan the case of Idrees Khattak became a grim reminder of how both government and state institutions can use laws against human rights defenders. The weaponization of such laws can have horrific consequences for activists who risk life and safety to defend human rights in Pakistan. With all these human rights violations, it is imperative that the country has full freedom of expression so that crimes come to light and egregious attempts to silence voices of dissent are exposed. Perhaps the worst attempt that the PTI government made was imposing the draconian but cleverly named Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance, and then there was the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) both targeting free speech in society.

As the government tried to expand the scope of restriction on freedom of expression, non-state actors also kept imposing their whims. The threat of non-state actors is increasing in Pakistan as most of them employ violent methods to silence those with a different faith or opinion. One such example was the murder of Nazim Jokhio who was a human rights defender but become a victim of some influential lords in his area when he exposed their criminal activities. In short, the HRCP report 2021 is an important document which is available online. We need more civil society organizations in Pakistan which can keep checks on government excesses and become the people’s voice.

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