KARACHI: Warning that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic will worsen human rights record of the country, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has observed that 2019 was the year of widespread social and economic marginalisation that left the weakest segment of society invisible and unheard.
The human rights organisation released its flagship annual report ‘State of Human Rights in 2019’ on Thursday.
HRCP honorary spokesperson I. A. Rehman termed Pakistan’s human rights record in 2019 ‘greatly worrisome’ and said the ongoing global pandemic was likely to cast a long shadow on prospects for human rights.
In the report, the HRCP observed that Pakistan had failed to protect its most vulnerable: reports of child labourers being sexually abused in mines surfaced in Balochistan, while news of young children being raped, murdered and dumped has become frighteningly common.
Report says last year will be remembered for systematic curbs on political dissent and chokehold on press freedom
At least 2,846 cases of child abuse were documented, although the number was likely higher, according to the report.
Women continued to bear the brunt of the society’s fixation with ‘honour’, with Punjab accounting for the highest proportion of ‘honour’ crimes.
Despite the laws enacted to protect and promote women’s rights in recent years, violence against women had escalated, the report noted.
Women continued to face discrimination in employment, financial inclusion, political representation and access to connectivity and education.
In its second year, Aurat March gave women across Pakistan a public space to articulate their issues, but not without inviting undue criticism and harassment.
Equally, the report noted that Pakistan did not protect those to whom it had a duty of care: prisoners in the country’s sorely overpopulated jails remained relegated to subhuman level.
According to the report, prisons in Pakistan remained appallingly overcrowded, with an occupancy rate of 133.8 per cent. The proportion of pre-trial detainee/remand prisoners relative to the total prison population was 62.1pc.
Overcrowding, unhygienic conditions and poor medical facilities for prisoners remained constant concerns, increasing their vulnerability to tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, among other diseases.
In Punjab alone, an estimated 188 prisoners on death row suffered from mental illnesses, the report said.
Law and order
As in previous years, there was a steady decline in conflict-related deaths, but the number of casualties of terrorist attacks and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan was still significant at 1,444 compared to 2,333 in 2018.
Reports of police extortion, refusal to register first information reports, and custodial torture emerged in all provinces, the HRCP noted.
In terms of administration of justice, by the year end, there were about 1.8 million cases pending in the courts, as against 1.9m in 2018.
Curbs on free speech
HRCP’s secretary general Harris Khalique observed: “The last year will be remembered for systematic curbs on political dissent, chokehold on press freedom and grievous neglect of economic and social rights.”
Numerous journalists reported that it had become even more difficult to criticise state policy. Former HRCP chairperson Zohra Yusuf said that this, coupled with the erosion of social media spaces and a deliberate financial squeeze on the media had led to Pakistan’s position slipping on the World Press Freedom Index.
Several thousand media persons lost their jobs and a number of newspapers and magazines shut down, largely due to financial squeeze imposed when government advertisements were withdrawn and previous dues withheld, the report highlighted.
Concerns over a concerted campaign against Dawn resurfaced when a mob besieged the newspaper’s offices in Karachi and Islamabad, chanting slogans in favour of an intelligence agency, it noted.
People continued to be reported ‘missing’ during the year, the HRCP report said, adding that it was imperative that the government delivered on its commitment to criminalise enforced disappearances. Equally, the continued operation of internment centres could not be justified on any grounds.
HRCP director Farah Zia said: “In the case of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa — both historically under-reported provinces — the acknowledgement of real issues and their political resolution is vital if the state is serious about strengthening the federation.”
Religious minorities remained unable to enjoy the freedom of religion or belief guaranteed to them under the constitution. For many communities, this meant desecration of their places of worship, forced conversion of young women and constant discrimination in access to employment.
While Pakistan witnessed the first-ever conviction of a former military ruler for high treason, constitutional compliance remained a major cause for concern, the HRCP said.
For instance, Article 140-A has yet to be implemented effectively, given the prolonged delay in holding local body elections in Punjab, KP and Balochistan.
“The 2019 report also offers standalone chapters on each federating unit and administered territories so that no area remains underreported or missed out,” Mr Khalique said.
In term of law-making, a total of 107 acts were passed by the parliament and the provincial assemblies: six federal acts and 101 provincial acts.
Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2020