Focus on human rights

Published Nov 08, 2012 12:15am

THE discussion on Pakistan’s human rights record during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council and the subsequent debate on it will have meaning only if the state starts delivering on the promises it has been making.

Since this year’s UPR was not without some positive features, these may be noted first. The government did take the UPR process, a four-yearly scrutiny of the state’s performance in fulfilling its human rights obligations by its peers at the UN, somewhat more seriously than its first review in 2008.

The process of consulting civil society before drafting the official report was more broad-based than before. The level of the official delegation for presenting the national brief was also higher than previously.

Equally welcome were the efforts of civil society organisations to support the UPR process. They made a substantial contribution to the wide-ranging stakeholders’ submissions. Their comments on and analyses of the Oct 30 hearing are improving citizens’ comprehension of the issues involved even if they cannot have an immediate impact on the custodians of power.

It must also be conceded that to the extent of affirming respect for human rights standards and the public demands, the official report was significantly better than the previous one (reviewed in 2008). Its salient features were:

— Democratic system strengthened, no curbs on the media, and no political prisoners.

— Ratified covenants of 1966, the Convention Against Torture, the Convention on the Rights of the Disabled, and one of the optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (sale of children, etc.)

— Policy on invitation to special procedures relaxed. The special rapporteur on the independence of judges and another one on freedom of information, and the Working Group on Disappearances invited.

— More than half a dozen pro-women laws made and legislation adopted for the creation of a National Commission on Human Rights based on the Paris Principles.

— Besides playing a keynote role in the fight against terrorism and paying for it, Pakistan has faced many challenges including those presented by a large number of refugees and natural disasters.

— Efforts made to guarantee better respect for minorities’ rights.

This national report suffers from a major flaw in as much as it presents promise as performance. The UPR is concerned essentially with what a state has done to strengthen the human rights regime over the preceding four years or so and not what it would like to do in the future.

When Pakistan ratifies an international human rights instrument the benefits that should accrue to the citizens do not automatically become available to them. Likewise, the adoption of a law to protect women against evil customs or violence does not mean the protec-tion envisaged by legislation has become available to Pakistan’s female population.

These ratifications and legislation constitute no more than a first, though necessary, step towards honouring a commitment, a bit of preparatory work, and thus fall in the category of promise and not in that of performance.

Considerable confusion was caused by the statement “in May 2012, Pakistan enacted a new law creating an independent National Commission for Human Rights in accordance with the Paris Principles”. It seems many foreign delegates at the hearing thought the commission had already been established and praised Islamabad for this. The fact is that the proposed commis-sion is as yet a promise and the six-month delay in its establishment cuts into the credit the authorities could claim for adopting a part of the required legislation.

Similarly, Pakistan received a compliment for having set up a minorities’ commission while the story of this dormant commission, which has never enjoyed due authority or autonomy or means of functioning, is nothing short of a scandal.

Since performance has been lagging much too far behind the promise, the government forfeits credit even for making fresh promises or taking some steps towards redeeming them. Thus Islamabad must not be surprised at the criticism that its UPR exercise has attracted.

It may be true that while presenting her brief the Pakistan foreign minister faced a more friendly audience than was the case in 2008. Islamabad has reason to be grateful to the agents of this change, Pakistanis as well as foreigners.

But Pakistan must be careful about the company it keeps. Laudatory remarks by states whose own record of human rights is questionable will do Pakistan more harm than good. Indeed Pakistan should value the opinions of wise critics, who candidly point out its failings and shortcomings, more than the endorsement it may receive from unwise friends.

Much was said in the national report and in the course of oral presentations about Pakistan’s role in fighting terrorism and the losses borne by the people. While factual statements on the country’s tribulations are quite in order they cannot be offered as mitigating circumstances for any acts of omission or commission.

Terrorism and natural disasters can distract any national authority but they cannot be offered as an excuse for depriving the people of their basic rights or for not paying these rights the attention they merit. Indeed, it is time the authorities realised that due and practical guarantees for the people’s human rights will better enable them to meet the challenges, however serious they may be and from whatever direction they may come.

The stark reality the state must not blink at is that the situation of human rights is causing alarm among all sections of the population and especially in the quarters that are qualified to assess it. The fruits of democracy are not reaching the people.

The media has reservations on the degree of freedom allowed to it and has a lot to say regarding lack of security. The threats to the citizens’ life, liberty and security are not abating. Violence against religious minorities and smaller Muslim sects has increased by a wide margin and the condition of women and children is showing little improvement.

Whatever the government’s priorities these days, it cannot afford to delay the task of bridging the gap between its human rights promises and the common citizen’s enjoyment of these entitlements. Greater respect for human rights will not only make Pakistan more secure, it will also make its justice system fairer and stronger.

There is a need to learn from countries that have an excellent human rights record. Some of them maintain special cells to suggest ways of raising their level of respect for human rights while other wings of the administration draft routine reports to the UN bodies. A part of this responsibility could be discharged by a national human rights institution provided it is actually allowed to function as an independent body and not made to whitewash the government’s excesses and aberrations.

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Comments (3) (Closed)


Anoosh Khan
Nov 09, 2012 03:14am
I think as part of the civic society we need to do our bit as citizens as well. We need to hold the government accountable for non-implementation of de facto laws which only enjoy a de jure status. This can be done through writings (as the author does), talk shows, academic discussions in and outside of classrooms etc. We are never present in the rooms when our government presents the state party reports but I know from experience that various human rights committees actually grill the state parties.
Cyrus Howell
Nov 08, 2012 06:44am
The U.N. delegates can chat over lunch, but countries full of people will do what they do.
shakrullah
Nov 08, 2012 12:52pm
Our performance in terms of human rights, the writer rightly points out, lags much too far behind the formal commitments we make at international forums . In fact , there is a stark clash between a whole range of human rights and our deeply embedded cultural norms and values . This clash can be observed so explicitly in our treatment of woman . Laws for the protection of women's right do not appear to change ground realities . In fact , what we need is social movements to educate people and to liberate their minds from traditions at variance with contemporary values . We need social reformers who have the vision and courage to question our traditions , and reject our past which impedes our cultural evolution.