The fight for human rights

Updated April 17, 2019

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THE July 2018 general elections ushered in a new political party to power and with it — for many — the hope of a ‘new Pakistan’ that championed ‘justice’ above all else.

However, the noise created around the elections and in the months leading up to it led to the abandonment of other serious issues that were overshadowed by politicking, horrific bouts of violence, and the various controversies that ensued following the announcement of the results.

In its recently released annual State of Human Rights report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan finds that the state of human rights deteriorated during the election year, as essential rights were trampled upon or ignored in the rush to power.

The advocacy group listed all the human rights violations that plagued the country in 2018, beginning with a clampdown on the press that holds power to account.

Other issues highlighted included the enforced disappearances of people; the alleged extrajudicial killings by law enforcement; the large backlog of cases and prisoners’ rights ignored, along with the prevalence of torture; the rampant violence against women and crimes committed in the name of ‘honour’; the sexual abuse and murder of children; child labour and the violation of labour rights; the ill-treatment and murder of transgender people; and the religious intolerance, discrimination and persecution faced by religious minorities.

It is worth remembering that most of these violations concerning the rights and dignity of individuals and marginalised groups precede this government, and indeed previous governments, as they are deeply embedded malaises in our society.

While noting the gains made by parliamentarians in pushing progressive legislation, the fact is that mindsets do not change easily and implementation of the law is poor.

For instance, despite the jubilation surrounding the passing of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in May, 2018, which guarantees the transgender community the right to self-identify, the realities on the ground remain dismal as they continue to be subjected to violence, harassment and ridicule.

Pakistan has repeatedly affirmed before the UN its pledge to uphold, promote and safeguard universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.

Yet most citizens and even law enforcement remain unaware of people’s rights — or the concept of inalienable human rights, in general, which gets muddied in political rhetoric, or is perceived as an alien concept in a society not used to individual liberty and equality.

But the fight for human rights is essentially a fight for the powerless, the underrepresented and the ignored in a society where might is right. In the past, many governments have rejected such reports on human rights abuses.

This government, which came to power on the promise of ‘change’, must ensure human rights by listening closer to those on the margins of society. Only then can we truly say we’ve voted in a new Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2019