LAHORE: The annual report of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan finds that the Covid-19 has aggravated existing inequalities in the country, leaving millions of vulnerable workers at risk of losing their livelihoods.

“The Benazir income support and Ehsaas programmes, which the government sensibly made part of its approach to the pandemic, likely saved thousands of households from sinking deeper into poverty, but these programmes are only a small facet of what a robust, pro-poor strategy should look like. A pivotal step by the government could be to make the right to health a fundamental right under the constitution and invest in preparedness, quality and access,” said the report, titled the State of Human Rights in 2020, released on Monday.

It termed the pandemic a huge blow to educational institutions, with students compelled to attend online classes to the detriment of thousands in Balochistan, the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan who had little or no access to reliable internet connections.

Stressing the importance of the local government for dealing with the pandemic, it bemoaned that the LG elections were delayed long past the deadline in all four provinces—thereby violating the Elections Act 2017 and negating the spirit of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

That report, released on the World Press Freedom Day (May 3), said that for the third consecutive year, the HRCP had underscored escalating curbs on freedom of expression.

“From the abduction of senior journalist Matiullah Jan to the arrest of Jang Group chief Mir Shakilur Rahman, it is clear that media groups continue to be pushed into towing the line,” it stated.

Taking on the so-called accountability process in the country, the report pointed out that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) continued its operations as an instrument that violated fundamental human rights, including the right to fair trial and due process, among other things.

The long-awaited bill aimed at criminalising enforced disappearances was not passed despite commitments to this effect by the incumbent government since 2018.

According to the HRCP report, Balochistan remained especially vulnerable to excesses of power, from the extrajudicial killing of Hayat Baloch, an unarmed student, by a Frontier Corps soldier, to the shooting of four-year-old Bramsh and allegations that the men responsible had been sent by the alleged local leader of a ‘death squad.’

Prisons in Pakistan remain sorely overcrowded, with an occupancy rate of 124 per cent. This is marginally lower than in 2019, but the ever-present risk of infection in the country’s prisons shows that the state has failed in its duty of care.

On a welcome note, the death penalty was awarded to at least 177 persons in 2020 — a substantial fall from at least 578 persons in 2019. No executions were reported to have been carried out.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2021

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