ISLAMABAD: The Human Rights Watch has asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to make human rights a key focus of his government since Pakistan faces serious human rights challenges, and addressing them should be one of the new government’s top priorities.

In a letter to PM Khan made public on Monday, the Asia Director of the Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, urged the government to begin by reversing abusive laws and policies and demonstrating genuine commitment to the rule of law and equal justice.

In the letter, the Human Rights Watch urged the Pakistan government to take concrete steps to protect fundamental civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in six key areas. “These are freedom of expression and attacks on civil society; freedom of religion and belief; violence against women and girls; access to education; restoring moratorium on death penalty; and terrorism and counterterrorism abuses.

“Imran Khan has an important opportunity to create a rights-respecting government that abides by the rule of law and restores the public faith in democratic institutions. It is crucial for Pakistan’s development for the government to actively carry out human rights agenda,” the rights watchdog said.

It said that a climate of fear impeded media coverage of abuses both by government security forces and militant groups. Journalists increasingly practice self-censorship after numerous attacks by militant groups, including the Taliban, in retaliation for criticism, particularly around their extremist diktats. Media outlets remain under pressure from the authorities to avoid reporting on several issues, including criticism of government institutions and the judiciary.

“The PTI has been a strong proponent of free expression, including on social media, to criticise state policy and press for change. An independent media is key to robust dialogue that reflects public concerns. Human Rights Watch hopes that the PTI government will foster a culture of political tolerance for media criticism,” the HRW said.

It urged the Pakistan government to amend the blasphemy law, as a first step towards its repeal. In the past two years, it said, Pakistan had witnessed an increase in blasphemy-related violence while the government continued to encourage discriminatory persecution and other forms of discrimination against vulnerable groups by failing to repeal discriminatory laws and using religious rhetoric, inciting hatred against minorities.

The rights watchdog urged the prime minister to take steps to implement legislation against domestic violence, create and implement a comprehensive national action plan to end child marriages, and take measures to improve investigation and prosecution of cases of “honour” killing and acid attack.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2018