DIRE. That’s the word the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan uses to describe the state of human rights in our country. Its annual report, released last week, makes for a distressing read, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. One wonders, given how widespread rights violations are, when this brutalised body politic will reach its breaking point.
The PTI government has cited concerns of riots fuelled by starvation as a reason to impose light-touch lockdowns. But the HRCP’s report reminds us that the state’s fear of its citizenry is rooted in a deeper knowledge of systemic fissures in our country; fissures produced by the disgraceful treatment of an underclass — including women, children, dissenters, religious minorities, labour, prisoners, and more — often by state institutions themselves.
The report identifies state efforts to stifle dissent as a key trend of 2019. The clampdown on media freedoms was complemented by the continuing strategy of enforced disappearances. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa led the way, with 2,472 missing persons cases registered as of December, including human rights activist Idris Khattak. Not surprisingly, initiatives to criminalise disappearances are stalled. The thing is, you only silence critics when you have something to hide. And the HRCP’s report — documenting everything from miscarriage of justice to child abuse to poor enfranchisement — gives a sense of what this might be.
The sad and shocking scale of rights abuses again raises the question of how efficacious the state’s censorship strategy can be. When the public narrative significantly diverges from lived experience, the only outcome is more frustration among the people, who realise that on top of being poorly served, they’re also being lied to and manipulated.
State efforts to stifle dissent was a key trend of 2019.
Pakistan has the somewhat unique problem that the concept of human rights has been deemed toxic among the middle classes because it is too often associated with curbs on media and religious freedoms. Decades of authoritarian state policy have entrenched a suspicion of democracy and secularism, and there is perversely a fair amount of support for policies targeting those labelled unpatriotic or blasphemous.
But human rights are also about positive access to food, healthcare, safety, and education. In the Covid-19 context, we must rehabilitate this understanding to build more public support for the rights agenda. The HRCP report includes reminders of how underserved Pakistanis are: our country’s healthcare spending is less than one per cent of GDP, even though the WHO recommends 6pc. And only 4pc of Pakistani children receive a ‘minimally acceptable diet’. These poor healthcare and nutrition standards expose the flaws of the prime minister’s reasoning that our youthful demography will protect us against the worst of the pandemic; malnourishment can hardly boost immunity.
The report also focuses on failings of our criminal justice system, an issue so endemic that we take it for granted rather than consider it a rights violation. But without a functional judicial system, we have no recourse or accountability. Justice in Pakistan is delayed and denied. And miscarriages of justice — such as Rana Bibi’s 19-year imprisonment for a murder she didn’t commit — are not atoned for.
In light of the pandemic, the plight of prisoners is particularly relevant. Pakistan’s prisons are appallingly overcrowded, with an occupancy rate of 133.8pc. More than 62pc of this population comprises pre-trial detainees and those on remand. Jam-packed prisoners are more vulnerable to diseases, including hepatitis, HIV and now Covid-19.
Another often overlooked issue highlighted by the HRCP that takes on more urgency in the coronavirus context is low levels of labour organisation. Only up to 3pc of Pakistan’s labour force is unionised, and there are few opportunities for collective bargaining for fair wages or safe working conditions. The Balochistan High Court last year banned 62 labour unions in the province. The disregard for labour rights will take on new dimensions during a pandemic, when workers should have ample rights to demand safe working conditions and job protection in the event of sickness.
While focusing on the pandemic, the government will likely overlook the HRCP’s findings. This will be to its demerit, since upholding human rights should underpin all policymaking. The challenges the report identifies will take years to address, but there are several ways this administration can signal a commitment to human rights. For starters, it can vow to protect the 18th Amendment. Such are the times, that the mere presentation of a report can be a political act. The HRCP has organised its report by province and administrative unit in a nod to the threats faced by the devolution process. After all, those closest, and so most accountable, to the people are best positioned to protect their rights.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2020