Who will defend the defenders?

31 May 2016


The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.
The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.

LAST week, Alisha, a transgender rights activist, died from her injuries after she had been shot in Peshawar. A little before Alisha was targeted, human rights activist, Khurram Zaki, was shot and killed by ‘unidentified gunmen’ in Karachi.

Despite a growing number of such attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs) in the recent past, the Pakistani government seems hostile to their work. Urgent reform of Pakistani law, policies and attitude towards human rights and HRDs is now needed to remedy this worsening situation.

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and other international standards recognise that an HRD may be anyone working for the promotion and protection of human rights. This broad conception encompasses professional as well as non-professional human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, lawyers and anyone else carrying out, even on an occasional basis, human rights work.

In recent years, Pakistan has clamped down on human rights and civil society groups domestically and is one of the handful of countries that oppose greater recognition and protection of human rights defenders internationally.

A specific law on human rights defenders is vital to recognise the legitimacy of their work.

The government’s ‘INGO policy’ and the proposed cybercrime law considerably constrain human rights defenders. The INGO policy subjects international NGOs to excessive and onerous registration procedures, which are shrouded in secrecy and are arbitrarily applied. The policy gives the government wide discretion to prohibit even legitimate human rights work that it views as ‘prejudicial’ to the state’s interests.

Similarly, Section 34 of the broadly framed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill gives the government powers to block access to information in the interest of the “glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan … public order, decency or morality”. This provision, if enacted, will threaten the rights of freedom of information and expression, both integral to the work of human rights defenders.

Pakistan has also demonstrated its hostility towards HRDs by its interventions at the UN. In March 2016, Pakistan lobbied against a UN Human Rights Council resolution that sought greater protection for HRDs working in the fields of economic, social and cultural rights. Before that in December 2015, Pakistan was one of only 14 out of 193 states that voted against the UN General Assembly resolution on HRDs.

On both these forums, Pakistan and its allies argued ‘human rights defenders’ were not a special group and did not warrant a special legal status. They claimed the recognition and protection of human rights defenders was a conspiracy by Western countries to interfere in the domestic affairs of developing countries.

The position here that HRDs are not a vulnerable class is indefensible given the well-documented record of harassment, threats and attacks against HRDs in the country. For example, in the last three years alone, militants have attacked dozens of polio and health workers, killing many of them, because of their work; in 2014, human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot because he was defending a blasphemy accused; and in 2015, Sabeen Mahmud was killed because of her public stance against religious extremism (and according to some sources, her work on enforced disappearances). According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 15 journalists have been killed since 2013.

Agents of the state have also perpetrated human rights violations against HRDs: protesters exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly have frequently been subjected to police brutality and are even prosecuted under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws; and countless activists and journalists, particularly those working on human rights in Balochistan, have been violently attacked, killed or subjected to enforced disappearance allegedly by members of the security and intelligence agencies.

In most of these cases, the state’s response is silence, denial, or hollow condemnation. Before more human rights activists become victims of a similar fate, as a matter of urgency, Pakistan should take a number of measures to protect HRDs and their work:

First, the state must publicly recognise the importance of their work. Vilifying HRDs and stigmatising their work; questioning their patriotism; and calling them ‘Western agents’ creates an insecure environment for HRDs and their work, which fosters further threats and attacks.

Second, in consultation with civil society actors, Pakistan must enact (and implement) a national law to give effect to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

A specific law on human rights defenders is vital not only to give legal protection to their work, but also to recognise the legitimacy, not to mention the public importance, of such work, as along with their watchdog function, HRDs can also assist the government ensure a better level of protection of human rights in law, policy and practice.

In addition, such a law must recognise that HRDs are at greater risk than many other groups of being victims of human rights violations as well as attacks by non-state actors. Colombia, for example, recently enacted specific provisions in its Penal Code to recognise that attacks and other violations against human rights defenders are often perpetrated because of their work.

Such a law must also, at the minimum, recognise and reinforce the right of HRDs to freedom of assembly and of association; the right to express opinion, whether or not critical, of the state, its agencies and other matters of public interest; and the right to unhindered access to other human rights organisations and institutions — domestic, regional or global.

And third, the National Commission for Human Rights must work closely with civil society groups and HRD networks to develop a strategy on the protection of HRDs. The Indian NCHR, for example, created a ‘Focal Point for Human Rights Defenders’ in 2010 and established a webpage for its work on HRDs, which includes cases of alleged attacks and violations. On its part, the government must ensure that the NCHR has adequate funds and facilities to perform its functions.

In its compliance report on the ICCPR to UN Human Rights Committee last year, Pakistan claimed to be a “democratic and progressive country”, firmly committed to the “promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The government must now follow up lip service with concrete action.

The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.


Twitter: reema_omer

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2016