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Major issues, poor response

Updated June 20, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

ANY bit of information that exposes misgovernance or any hardship to citizens doesn’t make newspaper headlines. Much of such information is tucked away at the bottom of newspapers’ columns, often found in the inside pages. But some of these matters have serious implications for citizens’ rights.

More than a month has passed since the first four-year term of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) expired. No public notice, in favour or against, seems to have been taken. The government might have been relieved because, like any other government, it cannot like an independent national human rights institution (NHRI), and the media is much too afraid to deviate from the establishment’s whim or caprice.

Also read: How committed is Pakistan to human rights?

The NCHR was created after years of public clamour, but it was a reluctantly delivered child. The law providing for it was adopted in 2011 but the appointment of the chairperson and members was delayed and the commission was able to start functioning only in 2015. And it never received the government support it needed and deserved.

However, it goes to the credit of retired justice Ali Nawaz Chohan, the much misunderstood chairperson, and his team of members who represented the provinces and the minority communities, that they did try to fulfil their mandate. Except for the somewhat controversial opinion on the Okara tenants’ rights, the 38 reports the commission released constitute a strong base for the defence and promotion of human rights in the country. These reports cover a wide variety of themes, from sexual abuse of children in Kasur, the threats to the identity and culture of the Kalash people, to the killing of the Hazaras of Quetta, recognition of the right to health, and to possible changes in the blasphemy law and procedure (the last one at the request of the Senate Committee on Human Rights.)

The NCHR was created after years of public clamour, but it was a reluctantly delivered child.

Within its limitations, the commission tried to abide by the Paris Principles, adopted by the UN General Assembly for the NHRIs in 1994. Briefly stated, these principles are: 1) an NHRI will monitor any human rights violation that it considers significant; 2) an NHRI will help the government and parliament to take steps for the protection and promotion of human rights and for compliance with international human rights instruments; 3) the institution will relate to regional and international organisations; 4) an institution will undertake HR education and training programmes; 5) an institution may exercise quasi-judicial functions.

The government must reconstitute the NCHR forthwith. It must respect the Paris Principles, and develop tolerance of and respect for a state-funded human rights watchdog.

Or take this matter of the whole of Pakistan waking up to the incidence of HIV/AIDS. Tests carried out in Larkana district after the discovery of numerous cases in Ratodero revealed that the dreaded disease had affected more people than was originally estimated. These stories caused anxiety on three counts:

1) The discovery of small children suffering from HIV/AIDS did not cause official or public outrage of the kind expected of a society that keeps boasting of its commitment to promoting children’s rights.

2) The cases of HIV/AIDS in Ratodero were treated as a sudden occurrence. If tests had been conducted on a regular basis, the authorities might have discovered the horrible situation earlier.

3) The pro-establishment elite showed more interest in denouncing Sindh government than in the suffering of patients. Reports of HIV/AIDS cases in Punjab seem to have been withheld. Eventually, the death of a woman in Punjab was admitted but a report of some 2,000 cases in the province was played down. The spread of HIV/AIDS is too serious a matter to be exploited for political gain or to be trivialised.

When the WHO said Pakistan’s polio eradication programme was off the rails, the health bosses’ siesta was not disturbed. Not even when restrictions on Pakistani travellers were extended for three months.

Is any more evidence required to conclude that people’s health issues are not receiving due attention from the federal and provincial authorities?

The allocation for health is supposed to have been raised in the new budget. But money alone cannot resuscitate a moribund health system. Curative services need to be supported with local government’s efficient running of Basic Health Units and Rural Health Centres. The doctors need to be sensitised to the right to life, especially of the poor and the marginalised. Further, it is essential to make preventive measures effective. Little is to be expected from state-of-the-art hospitals if three-fourths of the population cannot be guaranteed safe water for drinking.

Before he had a brawl with a TV anchor, the science minister’s main concern was to make the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee redundant. Thanks to his intervention we had the strangest of divisions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Eid. Peshawar city followed Maulana Popalzai, the cantonment didn’t; the chief minister (head of the provincial government) celebrated Eid on Tuesday and the governor (the federal representative) on Wednesday. Such wonderful unity in diversity!

What made the controversy over moon-sighting the topmost item on the science minister’s agenda? Is there no problem with science teaching in the country? Is the retreat of scientific thinking in the face of dogma not an issue in Pakistan? Democratic opinion is as much opposed to the state’s interference in religious matters as it is against the religious lobby’s interference in state affairs, as per Quaid-i-Azam’s declaration.

Incidentally, the science minister has received unsolicited support from an independent and widely respected aalim, Javed Ahmad Ghamdi. Moon-sighting was started, he says in the latest edition of monthly Ishraq, to determine the number of days in a month. This could be done by other means too. After all, the timing for the five daily prayers is done with the help of clocks and watches.

Question: what will be done if the new moon cannot be sighted on Ramazan 30?

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2019