Human rights review

Nov 10 2017

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ON Nov 13, UN member states will review Pakistan’s human rights record for the third time through the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.

Pakistan has been reviewed twice before in 2008 and 2012, but this time around there is an important difference: Pakistan finally has an operational National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), which has made its own submission for the UPR process.

Refreshingly, instead of glossing over the government’s dismal human rights record — as we have seen a number of other national human rights institutions do in their UPR submissions — the NCHR’s report raises serious concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, echoing those of a number of national and international human rights organisations.

The NCHR’s work has been subjected to a number of constraints.

The UPR is a unique mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council aimed at improving the human rights situation of each of the 193 UN member states. Under this mechanism, the human rights record of all UN member states is peer-reviewed every four to five years by the UPR Working Group, consisting of the 47 UN member states of the Human Rights Council; however, any UN member state can take part in the discussions during the UPR of the reviewed states. States then make recommendations to the country under review, which has the option of accepting or noting the recommendations.

In this process, civil society organisations too can submit their own assessments of the human rights record of the state being reviewed, as can the state’s national human rights institution — which in Pakistan’s case is the NCHR.

The NCHR was constituted under the National Commission for Human Rights Act, 2012, for the “protection and promotion of human rights as provided for in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the various international instruments to which Pakistan is a party or shall become a party”.

Since the law was passed, however, the commission’s work has been subjected to a number of constraints, including its restrictive mandate over security and intelligence agencies, the government’s delay in appointing members to the commission, the reported lack of impartiality of certain commission members, and attempts by the government to restrict the independent functioning of the commission.

Earlier this year, for example, the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee against Torture expressed concern about the government’s refusal to allow the chairperson of the NCHR to meet them and present their reports and stated that, “there are indications that the commission is not fully independent”.

The commission has itself noted that national human rights protection mechanisms, including the NCHR, “suffer from institutional weaknesses such as political interference, budgetary constraints, lack of trained personnel and restrictive power”.

Now, however, it seems that things are changing.

Take the NCHR’s submission for Pakistan’s Universal Periodic Review. Even on contentious issues like blasphemy, enforced disappearance, the death penalty, and military courts, the commission’s submission is surprisingly critical — in stark contrast to the government’s national report, which is either silent on or grossly plays down some of the most egregious human rights violations in Pakistan.

For example, the commission’s report points out that, despite accepting a number of recommendations to criminalise the practice of enforced disappearance in the previous UPR, enforced disappearance is still not recognised as a distinct criminal offence in Pakistan. The government’s report, however, does not even acknowledge the question of criminalisation of the practice.

Also, in its national report the government wrongly asserts Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are non-discriminatory, and “no one has been punished” under these laws. The commission, however, correctly highlights that blasphemy laws “remain an area of deep concern” in the country.

Similarly, while the government claims to have a “strong commitment to the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and opinion”, the commission points out that freedom of speech in the country is often curtailed in the name of national security, including through laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.

Most significantly, perhaps, the commission recommends that Pakistan abolish the death penalty and “as an immediate action reintroduce the moratorium on the death penalty”.

Despite the execution of nearly 500 people in less than three years — in many instances marred by other serious human rights violations, including of the right to a fair trial, the imposition of capital punishment on people with physical and mental disabilities, and the execution of people who were children at the time of the offence — the death penalty is not even mentioned in the government’s national report.

That the NCHR has made a critical, seemingly independent report for the UPR process is significant for a number of reasons.

Pakistan has in the past dismissed NGO reports to UN bodies as biased and driven by ‘vested interests’. It will, however, have to take the NCHR’s observations seriously, especially as it has held up the NCHR before the UN, the European Union and the international community as proof of its commitment to improving human rights.

The NCHR’s report is also an indication that after initial teething problems, the commission is now a step closer towards fulfilling its mandate, which includes more effective implementation of Pakistan’s treaty obligations. This is a key prerequisite for the NCHR to get accreditation by the international coordinating committee of national human rights institutions, which is a requirement for an NHRI to be recognised internationally.

With UN treaty-monitoring bodies, special procedures, over a dozen civil society organisations, and now also the NCHR highlighting the serious human rights issues in Pakistan today, the government seems isolated in its glorified assessment of Pakistan’s ‘deep commitment’ to human rights.

One hopes that Pakistan will drop its doublespeak and posturing to engage with the UPR mechanism in its true spirit on Monday.

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

reema.omer@icj.org

Twitter: reema_omer

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2017