Missed opportunity

December 21, 2018

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The writer is executive director, Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer is executive director, Justice Project Pakistan.

ON the morning of Dec 17, news started trickling in from various sources, that for the first time Pakistan had become one of the 121 countries who voted in favour of a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on executions. By midday, in the absence of a government statement, Pakistan’s vote in favour was accepted as fact.

Rights activists all over the country rejoiced. Although the vote was unexpected, it was widely praised. For too long Pakistanis have been subjected to a criminal justice system that preys on the vulnerable and the poor. This was a win for the beleaguered human rights movement of the country, a victory for those that demand reform and those that stand to benefit from it. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. By afternoon, the Foreign Office had sent out a tweet from its official account, stating “the vote was inaccurately recorded due to technical issues”.

While delegates can inadvertently press the wrong button, it is foolish to blame the UN system of recording votes. This is, after all, the UN General Assembly, where the votes are cast live and recorded electronically. In fact, it is standard practice that once the vote is cast, everyone gets a chance to review their vote and correct it. Whichever way we look at it, this ‘correction’ of the vote resounds as a missed opportunity for Pakistan to acknowledge the systemic failures in its criminal justice system, with a view to reforming them, and a squandered chance to move upwards on the world stage.

With the current resolution vote, Pakistan would have had a chance to correct its abhorrent history of handing out the death penalty to the wrongfully convicted, to the mentally ill, to the physically disabled and to juveniles. According to Counting the Condemned, a report by Justice Project Pakistan, Pakistan ranks globally as one of the most prolific users of the death penalty with 4,688 prisoners on death row, with 500 executions since 2014 and 33 crimes punishable by death.

On average, our courts sentence one person to death per day.

On average, our courts sentence one person to death per day. We also have the unenviable distinction of accounting for 14 per cent of death sentences worldwide. In recent years, a single bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has overturned death sentences in 85pc of the appeals, citing mistrials and faulty investigations. Overturning of convictions at such a high rate is a damning indictment of the criminal justice system. In 2016, the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers who were on death row. Tragically, they had been hanged the year before. Such a gross travesty of justice, where innocent men are hanged, alone would have compelled another state to hit the pause button; to investigate what went wrong; to correct course. Whichever side of the argument on capital punishment one may stand on, there is no denying that justice demands that we convict the guilty, and not execute the innocent.

By voting in favour of the resolution, Pakistan would have reaffirmed its commitment to uphold minimum fair trial guarantees in its application of the death penalty and signalled to the world that it takes its ability to impose the ultimate punishment, with great responsibility. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Pakistan has, in effect, signed up for removing the systemic flaws in its legal apparatus that allow vulnerable people to be sentenced to death.

The haste with which the vote is being disavowed is, therefore, baffling. There was nothing in the resolution that should make the Ministry of Foreign Affairs panic. The text of the resolution asks member states to respect international stan­dards that provide safeguards for the rights of those on death row, to follow the minimum standards that ensure that the punishment is not imposed on the most vulnerable and in an arbitrary manner, and to progressively reduce the number of offences for which the death penalty may be imposed. Voting in favour of the resolution, which mostly reiterated the minimum due process guarantees, already present in our Constitution and in our treaty obligations, would have sent out a strong statement of principle from Pakistan to the world.

By standing by its vote in favour of the resolution, Pakistan would have moved out of the isolationist block of 35 countries that vote against the moratorium, and would have taken its rightful place among the 120 countries that are committed to progressing human rights and dedicated to upholding the values of justice and fair trial.

Instead, by refuting the vote (and blaming the UN voting system as being at fault), we have not only lost out on the chance to score a much-needed diplomatic triumph but have also disavowed due process principles enshrined in our own Constitution and under our international obligations. It’s high time we stand up and take responsibility for our actions, both at the UN and back home.

The writer is executive director, Justice Project Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2018