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Pakistan’s human rights record worrisome: HRCP

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Covid-19 pandemic affecting human rights, weakest segments of society invisible and unheard, notes HRCP in its flagship report

High Asia Herald Report

Islamabad: Pakistan’s human rights record is worrisome as curbs on dissenting views increased. The outbreak of Coronasvirus will have far-reaching effects on people’s economic and social rights fundamental rights, says a report.

“Widespread social and economic marginalisation have left the weakest segments of society invisible and unheard,” notes the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

HRCP’s honorary spokesperson I.A. Rehman has termed Pakistan’s human rights record in 2019 ‘greatly worrisome’, adding that the ongoing global pandemic ‘is likely to cast a long shadow on prospects for human rights.

On the release of its flagship annual report, ‘State of Human Rights in 2019’, HRCP’s secretary-general Harris Khalique observed: “Last year will be remembered for systematic curbs on political dissent, the chokehold on press freedom, and the grievous neglect of economic and social rights.”

“The 2019 report also offers standalone chapters on each federating unit and administered territories so that no area remains underreported or missed out,” he added.

The report notes a lack of political will, adequate planning, policies, and laws to protect the constitutional, democratic, and environmental rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.

The local communities in Gilgit-Baltistan are particularly vulnerable to natural hazards, with scores of casualties reported during the year.

Numerous journalists reported that it had become even more difficult to criticise state policy. Former HRCP chairperson Zohra Yusuf says that this, coupled with the erosion of social media spaces and a deliberate financial squeeze on the media, ‘led to Pakistan’s position slipping on the World Press Freedom Index.’

People continued to be reported ‘missing’ during the year. It is imperative that the government deliver on its commitment to criminalise enforced disappearances. Equally, the continued operation of internment centres cannot be justified on any grounds. HRCP director Farah Zia said: ‘In the case of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa)—both historically under-reported provinces—the acknowledgment of real issues and their political resolution is vital if the state is serious about strengthening the federation.’

Religious minorities remained unable to enjoy the freedom of religion or belief guaranteed to them under the constitution. For many communities, this has meant the desecration of their sites of worship, the forced conversion of young women, and constant discrimination in access to employment.

While Pakistan witnessed the first-ever conviction of a former military ruler for high treason, constitutional compliance remains a major cause for concern. For instance, Article 140-A has yet to be implemented effectively, given the prolonged delay in holding local body elections in Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan. The restoration of student unions and space for trade unions to function remains a cause for concern.

Chairperson Dr Mehdi Hasan reaffirmed HRCP’s distress over the gross violations of human rights committed in Indian-held Kashmir since August 2019 and the imminent fallout of the situation on regional peace and stability.

Laws and law-making

A total of 107 acts were passed by the parliament and the provincial assemblies: six federal Acts and 101 provincial Acts.

Eleven presidential ordinances were rushed through parliament, attracting criticism from human rights observers. These ordinances were withdrawn by the government in November.

By year-end, there were close to 1.8 million cases pending in the judiciary, as against 1.9 million in 2018.

In June, following the 2017 decision to establish model criminal trial courts to dispose of cases more swiftly, the Chief Justice of Pakistan approved the establishment of another 57 model courts at the tehsil level. However, observers have questioned their performance, especially in the context of the long-awaited reform of the criminal justice system.

According to the report, while the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) received over 51,000 complaints in 2019, with a total of 1,275 corruption references at different stages of hearing in the courts, its activities drew considerable criticism. It was seen as being selective and highhanded in dealing with cases pursued against members of the political opposition, while the National Commission for Human Rights held that NAB had violated the law by not allowing the former access to its detention centres.

The report also highlights flaws in the justice system citing Rani Bibi’s case, who was convicted wrongfully of murder when she was 14 and spent 19 years in prison, was acquitted by the Lahore High Court, but received no compensation for the miscarriage of justice.

The report also mentions the controversial Sahiwal encounter case. Six Counter-Terrorism Department officials implicated in the killing of a family in Sahiwal, Punjab, in a so-called police encounter, were acquitted by an anti-terrorism court in October.

Religious minorities remained unable to enjoy the freedom of religion or belief guaranteed to them under the constitution. For the Ahmadiyya community in Punjab, this included the desecration of several sites of worship.

Both the Hindu and Christian communities in Sindh and Punjab continued to report cases of forced conversion and marriages of teenage girls in Punjab and Sindh.

The death penalty

The report says the death penalty was awarded in 584 cases in 2019, while 15 people were executed, 12 of them in Punjab. As of December 2019, at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy were still on death row.

In December, a Multan district and sessions court handed down a death sentence to academic Junaid Hafeez on charges of blasphemy. Mr Hafeez has already spent six years in solitary confinement.

The country’s top court had overturned the death penalty in 78 percent of 310 judgments between 2010 and 2018.

Pakistan and international human rights mechanisms

In May 2019, Pakistan submitted a delayed report to the UN Human Rights Committee, following the latter’s observations on the country’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee deemed much of the report unsatisfactory, especially in the context of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and the use of the death penalty.

Pakistan has ratified eight ILO conventions but has yet to implement these effectively. The right to collective bargaining is poorly enforced and the country has yet to eliminate the worst forms of child  and forced labour and discrimination in employment.

Law and order

Reports of police extortion, refusal to register first information reports, and custodial torture emerged in all provinces, the HRCP noted, citing the widely publicised Salahuddin Ayubi case who died in police custody in Punjab.

Cybercrime and online harassment across Pakistan rose exponentially. Cases of women being blackmailed were reported throughout the year.

Pakistan does not protect those to whom it has a duty of care:  prisoners in the country’s overpopulated jails remain relegated to a subhuman level.

Overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and poor medical facilities for prisoners remained constant concerns, increasing their vulnerability to tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis, among other diseases.

In Punjab alone, an estimated 188 prisoners on death row suffer from mental illnesses.

According to the Interior Ministry, close to 11,000 Pakistanis were in overseas jails in 2019.

Internment centres remained operational even after the controversial KP Actions (In Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance 2019 had expired. The Supreme Court continued to hear petitions calling for these centres to be abolished, as well as government appeals against the Peshawar High Court ruling that these centres were unconstitutional.

Enforced disappearances

Pakistan has yet to criminalise enforced disappearances even after a commitment to this effect made by the incumbent government on several occasions.

Since the inception of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, KP has topped the list in the numbers of missing persons. At the end of December 2019, the total number of cases registered in KP stood at 2,472.

People continued to be reported ‘missing’ during the year—either for their political or religious affiliations or for their defence of human rights. In southern Punjab, Ahmad Mustafa Kanju, a political party worker, was abducted allegedly by state agencies in January. In KP, human rights activist Idris Khattak has been missing since November.

The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances falls short of being an effective agency to provide relief to the citizens, apportion responsibility and bring perpetrators to justice. Democratic development

Official restrictions on movement were imposed on people attending political and protest rallies.

Freedom of association & expression

Workers and supporters of social movements, including some with political affiliations, were subjected to intimidation or detention on charges of sedition and terrorism.

Barriers to setting up trade unions, the creation of categories of workers prohibited from joining unions, limitations on and methods used to break up certain types of strikes, and the possibility of dismissal have discouraged the unionisation of labour at all levels, resulting in limited space for collective bargaining.

Over 60 labour unions in Balochistan were banned following a decision by the Balochistan High Court.

Although some provincial assemblies announced that they would restore student unions, this longstanding issue remains pending.

Curbs on freedom of opinion and expression continued to escalate. Journalists in Balochistan and KP, in particular, reported that it had become even more difficult to speak or write openly on ‘sensitive’ issues such as enforced disappearances, or to criticise state policy or security agencies in these areas.

After media organisations rejected a proposal to establish one regulatory authority across the media, the government announced that special tribunals would be set up to hear complaints against the media. Journalists and human rights organisations condemned this as a means to gag the media further.

Pakistan’s internet freedom ranking declined even further in 2019, attributed to a problematic cybercrime law, internet shutdowns, and cyber-attacks against political dissenters, justified on the grounds of national security.

Several thousand media persons lost their jobs and a number of newspapers and magazines shut down, largely due to the financial squeeze imposed when government advertisements were withdrawn and previous dues withheld.

Women’s rights

Pakistan has failed to protect its most vulnerable: reports of child workers being sexually abused in mines surfaced in Balochistan, while news of young children being raped, murdered, and dumped has become frighteningly common. Women continued to bear the brunt of society’s fixation with ‘honour’, with Punjab accounting for the highest proportion of ‘honour’ crimes.

‘Honour’ crimes continued unabated, with Punjab accounting for the highest proportion reported overall. Afzal Kohistani, a whistleblower in KP who had fought the legal battle for five young women killed for ‘honour’ in Kohistan in 2012, was gunned down in March.

Investigators revealed that 629 women had been trafficked as brides to China between 2018 and early 2019.

Child protection laws have yet to take effect in the areas of domestic labour and child marriage.

Despite legislation, violence against the transgender community continued during the year. Local transgender community groups said that at least 65 transgender persons had been killed across KP since 2015.

Pakistan was ranked 151 out of 153 by the World Economic Forum on the Global Gender Gap Index.

Despite the legislation enacted to protect and promote women’s rights in recent years, violence against women has escalated.

Women continued to face discrimination in employment, financial inclusion, political representation, and access to connectivity and education.

In its second year, Aurat March gave women across Pakistan a public space to articulate their issues, but not without inviting undue criticism and harassment.

Among numerous reports of sexual harassment at educational institutions and workplaces, women students at the University of Balochistan accused the administration of using CCTV cameras to film students in potentially compromising situations.

As of June 2019, there were government-run women’s shelters in all 36 districts in Punjab, as well as violence against women centre in Multan. However, there were only five darul-amans in Sindh, five in KP, and only two in Balochistan.

Children’s rights

At least 2,846 cases of child abuse were documented, according to one estimate, although the number is likely higher. Incidents of child abuse ranged from reports of child labourers being sexually abused in mines in Balochistan to children as young as 13 being drugged and gang-raped in Sindh, the report observes.

Although the National Commission on the Rights of the Child Act was passed in 2017, the Commission has yet to be constituted.

Despite legislation against the employment of minors, the practice persists in industries and homes; cases of abuse among child domestic workers continued to surface through the year.

Only 4 percent of children in Pakistan receive a ‘minimally acceptable diet’, according to a UN report.

The National Nutrition Survey reveals a high percentage of children who are stunted and suffer from wasting.

Disparities based on gender, socioeconomic status, and domicile are significant; in Sindh, 52 percent of the poorest children (58 percent girls) are out of school, and in Balochistan, 78 percent of girls are out of school. • Budgetary allocations for education fell significantly during the year, both at the federal and provincial levels.

Cases of corporal punishment continued to be reported across the country.

Labourers’ rights

At least 160 mine-related deaths took place in 2019, even as mines continue to be operated by people who lack the financial resources and technical skills to provide for operational safety or to deal with emergencies. There is no evidence of progress in the implementation of safety and health standards in this sector.

The implementation of labour laws is still deficient with virtually no site inspections or enforcement of fundamental health and safety measures, particularly in the case of informal labour.

Only a small percentage of the labour force is unionised—an estimated 2 to 3 percent—and there is little pressure for the implementation of labour laws, living wages, and decent working conditions.

Although the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act in 2018, progress on its implementation—as with many such laws—remained slow. Education • According to UN estimates, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children, with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5–16 not attending school, representing 44 percent of the total population in this age group.

Health

The poor health infrastructure of the country was exposed in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. The country’s spending on health is still less than 1 percent of its GDP, whereas the WHO recommends an allocation of about 6 percent.

The poor quality and coverage of public health services mean there is a high dependence on the more costly private sector, putting adequate healthcare out of reach for thousands of households.

As a result, many people are driven to consult unqualified medical practitioners, often with dire consequences.

Depression rates have risen, according to the Pakistan Association for Mental Health. There is no evidence that Pakistan has developed a coordinated national strategy to achieve the objectives of WHO’s comprehensive mental health action plan (2013–20).

The control of communicable diseases remained a cause for serious concern. Additionally, the incidence of non-communicable diseases— heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, and various cancers— has risen.

Between April and June 2019, a total of 30,192 people in Larkana, Sindh, were screened for HIV, of which 876 were found positive; 82 percent were below the age of 15 years.

At 135, the number of confirmed polio cases continued to rise and the main reason is said to be the refusal of parents to have their children immunised.

Environment

In September, people in more than 20 cities across the country took part in a climate march to demand that the government develop an action plan for climate change as early as possible.

According to the World Air Quality Report for 2019, Pakistan is ranked second among the world’s most polluted countries in terms of the presence of PM 2.5 in the atmosphere. In December, Lahore was among the world’s ten cities with the worst air quality.

Pakistan was ranked among the top ten countries most affected by climate change, with wide-ranging impacts on the population and economy due to extreme weather fluctuations over the last two decades. The lack of adequate planning, policies, and laws to protect the environment have left local communities in Gilgit-Baltistan particularly vulnerable to natural hazards, with scores of casualties reported during the year.

Sindh witnessed acute water shortages linked to rapid urbanisation, poor water management, and climate change. In July, some 1,500 people marched from Kharo Chan to Thatta to demand that the government resolve the water crisis.

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