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Human rights obligations

December 13, 2018


I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

IN addition to the domestic pressures for expeditious completion of its national human rights agenda, the state of Pakistan has to ensure that it keeps fulfilling on time the pledges it made to the international community during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) a year ago.

The UPR provides an opportunity for a most thorough scrutiny of a state’s human rights record. Since citizens have a right to know how their state has fared on the UPR, and they also have possibilities of contributing to the periodic stock-taking, it is necessary that they familiarise themselves with the process before looking at the commitments made by Pakistan.

The UPR scheme was launched by the UN General Assembly in 2008, to be carried out by the Human Rights Council (HRC) that had replaced the UN Human Rights Commission as the international rights monitoring body. The HRC reviews a member state’s human rights record every four to five years. Pakistan has had its reviews in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2017.

On the latest occasion, a three-state group was formed to facilitate the country’s UPR; Pakistan presented a national report; and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) prepared a working paper and a summary. A list of questions prepared by 14 countries was sent to Islamabad in advance. Then Pakistan made a presentation at a hearing in which 111 countries made statements and recommendations.

The UPR provides an opportunity for a most thorough scrutiny of the state’s human rights record.

In his presentation, the then foreign minister made an astonishing claim — that the national report had been prepared through extensive and inclusive consultation with all stakeholders, including civil society organisations and academia. He referred to the flourishing of democracy in Pakistan with a sovereign parliament, an independent judiciary, a free media and a vibrant civil society. Explaining the impact of terrorism and extremism on human rights, he mentioned the campaign against terrorists launched in 2014, gave reasons for lifting the moratorium on the death penalty, referred to the creation of the Ministry of Human Rights and HR committees down to the district level, and steps taken to protect minorities’ rights. He said Pakistan recognised the universality and indivisibility of human rights, but that economic and social rights were of paramount importance for it.

The secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights said independent and well-funded institutions such as the National Commission for Human Rights and the Commission on the Status of Women had been established. He also referred to the Benazir Income Support Programme and the adoption of new marriage laws for Hindus and Christians.

After a long discussion, 289 recommendations were made for Pakistan to improve its human rights situation. Pakistan rejected four recommendations — all made by India on subjects that Islamabad considered too sensitive to be broached. It accepted 174 recommendations, and ‘noted’ 111 suggestions, which means that these recommendations will be considered.

Pakistani authorities do not like the fact that the largest number of recommendations relate to the abolition of the death penalty or revival of the moratorium, and laws for offences relating to religion, but due notice should be taken of these suggestions, too, because Pakistan must secure a place of dignity among the comity of nations.

Strangely enough, Pakistan has put in the ‘noted’ list 29 of the 30 recommendations that called for ratifying various international conventions. While the reasons for reservations with regard to death penalty, for instance, are known, there can be no reason for dithering on the plea to ratify the convention on enforced disappearances made by 12 countries. Similar is the case with the recommendation to ratify the optional protocol to the convention against torture, or the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Quite a few of the conventions put in the ‘noted’ category should be ratified forthwith.

Sometimes the distinction made between a recommendation that is accepted and another one that is ‘noted’ is quite whimsical. For instance, a recommendation for “specific legislative or regulatory measures” for elimination of discrimination against minority groups had been ‘noted’ while the next two similar and broader recommendations have been accepted. And there is no reason for putting five recommendations about freedom of expression, threats to journalists and cases of murdered media persons in the ‘noted’ category.

It is also necessary to look at the state of implementation of the 174 recommendations that Islamabad has accepted. Some of these recommendations, such as the call to strengthen the Ministry of Human Rights and the National Commission on Human Rights in terms of human and financial resources, and to allow them greater independence, or the suggestions to invite all UN special rapporteurs, are unexceptionable.

Some other recommendations that had been accepted call upon Pakistan to: allocate sufficient resources for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and make stronger efforts to realise them; inquire into the enforced disappearance of human rights defenders and punish violators of their rights, to end impunity for crimes against journalists and media workers; and carry out human rights education and training programmes.

The government will do itself good by reviewing implementation of the accepted recommendations every six months or so. It must also fulfil its obligation to make its promises given at the international forum public. While preparing for the next UPR, it must consult genuine civil society organisations and eminent academics.

It would be wrong to ignore the need to benefit from the UN mechanisms in view of other issues on the national agenda, such as the economic crisis or terrorism, etc. The reason is that, while Islamabad may think that some of the recommendations reflect the foreign states’ biases for or against one value or another, most of the suggestions are for the good of the people of Pakistan. Besides, Pakistan cannot be content with depending on a few steadfast friends. It badly needs to improve its image in the eyes of the large number of countries that will be happy to be convinced of our state’s ability to protect the rights and interests of its citizens.

Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2018