Dismal approach to rights

Updated Nov 24 2019

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The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.
The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.

EARLIER this month, the UN Human Rights Committee evaluated information provided by the government for the follow-up to the committee’s concluding observations regarding Pakistan’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

In a damning indictment of the government’s seriousness in fulfilling its international legal obligations, the committee found most of Pakistan’s responses insufficient or irrelevant.

To understand what happened, and why Pakistan scored so poorly, here is some background.

Over two years ago now, on Aug 23, 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee issued its concluding observations following its review of Pakistan’s first periodic report under the ICCPR. From its many recommendations, for follow-up the committee prioritised its recommendations related to the death penalty; enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings; and freedom of religion, conscience and belief.

The committee thus requested Pakistan to provide information on the implementation on these recommendations within one year of the adoption of the concluding observations, that is, by Aug 22, 2018. However, it was only on May 16, 2019, that Pakistan finally submitted its follow-up report to the Committee.

Pakistan responded in a perfunctory manner to the UN committee’s recommendations.

Let’s consider the committee’s recommendations related to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions and Pakistan’s responses.

After expressing concern about “the high incidence of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings allegedly perpetrated by the police and military and security forces”, the committee made four separate recommendations to Pakistan:

1) Criminalise enforced disappearance and put an end to the practice of enforced disappearance and secret detention;

2) Review the Actions (in aid of Civil Power) Re­­gu­­lation, 2011 with a view to repealing it or bringing it into conformity with international standards;

3) Ensure that all allegations of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings are promptly and thoroughly investigated; all perpetrators are prosecuted and punished, with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crimes; families of disappeared persons and their lawyers and witnesses are protected; and a mechanism is put in place for full and prompt reparation for victims and their families; and

4) Further strengthen the authority and the capacity (financial and personnel) of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances so that the latter can function effectively.

Instead of taking meaningful steps to implement these recommendations and report the same to the committee, the government responded in a perfunctory manner, merely repeating information it had earlier provided during the committee’s initial review of Pakistan in 2017.

What the government failed to report was that instead of any improvement towards ending the practice of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, in many respects the situation had worsened since 2017.

To date, enforced disappearances persist and are still not criminalised; not a single perpetrator of enforced disappearance has been brought to justice; and the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances remains the same — no steps have been taken by the government to strengthen the commission’s operating framework or by the commission itself to initiate criminal proceedings against perpetrators of enforced disappearances.

Most striking of all, instead of amending or repealing the oppressive Actions (in aid of Civil Power) Regulations, the government passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance in August 2019, which extended the scope of the sweeping powers granted to members of the armed forces under the regulations to the whole of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

In light of these concerns, the committee rated Pakistan’s progress for implementing its recommendations as ‘C’, which means: “A response has been received, but action taken or information provided by the state party is not relevant or does not implement the recommendation.”

The committee responded in a similar fashion to information Pakistan provided about its purported implementation of most recommendations related to the death penalty and the right to freedom of religion, thought, conscience or belief.

For example, recalling that it had recommended to Pakistan to repeal all blasphemy laws or amend them to ensure their compliance with the strict requirements of the ICCPR, the committee regretted that Pakistan had provided no information on any concrete measures taken in this regard.

Similarly, the committee regretted that the government had provided no information on measures taken to prevent executions of people with serious intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, even though one of the recommendations urged Pakistan to ensure “no person with serious psychosocial or intellectual disabilities is executed or sentenced to death, including by establishing an independent mechanism to review all cases where there is credible evidence that prisoners who are facing the death penalty have such disabilities”.

Pakistan’s follow-up review not only shows its lack of commitment towards fulfilling its international human rights obligations, but could also contribute to its losing trade incentives under the European Union’s GSP Plus scheme.

The GSP Plus trading status is an instrument of the EU’s trade policy that aims to encourage developing countries to comply with core international standards in return for trade incentives. Conditions to get and retain the special status include ratification of seven core international human rights treaties, ensuring their effective implementation, and complying with their reporting requirements. Pakistan’s next GSP Plus review is scheduled for early 2020, when the EU will decide whether or not to continue Pakistan’s preferential status.

It is, therefore, crucial for Pakistan to take seriously the recommendations of the treaty-monitoring bodies; to prepare a concrete, action-oriented strategy in consultation with civil society organisations on their implementation; and to be in a position to demonstrate concrete and significant progress in practice.

Failure to do so would hurt people in Pakistan twice over — not only will they continue to be deprived of fundamental human rights guaranteed by Pakistan’s Constitution as well as international instruments, they will also risk losing the economic benefits that result from the EU’s trade incentives under the GSP Plus.

The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.

reema.omer@icj.org

Twitter: reema_omer

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2019