AS Pakistan struggles with its economic, political and constitutional crises, there has not been much focus on the human rights of its people. The fact of the matter is that all aspects of citizens’ organised life have now been placed nationally and internationally in the human rights framework to give them legal protection.
In that context, the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Harris Khalique, did well to turn the spotlight on the fundamental rights of the people. The occasion of the talk was the Hamza Wahid Lecture, which is an annual commemoration of this humanist, progressive academic who was also a social worker. It is time that our rulers and the IMF — both supposedly our benefactors — realised that while they are locked in a struggle to outwit each other, those who suffer are the masses.
Surprisingly, we find no mention of human rights in the current national discourse. Even the news from Geneva about the reaction of the UN Human Rights Council to Pakistan’s fourth Universal Period Review failed to evoke public interest. For readers’ information, the HRC members responded with 340 ‘recommendations’ — a politically correct way of saying, ‘raised objections’.
Of the nine core human rights treaties of the UN, Pakistan is party to only seven. The two that Islamabad has chosen to ignore are the conventions on the protection of all persons from enforced disappearances, and the convention on the rights of migrant workers. It is not clear why we have passed over the last two treaties. After all, the government’s human rights record in the areas covered by these seven instruments to which Pakistan is a party is not impeccable. It continues to flagrantly disregard the responsibilities the treaties impose on Pakistan. That explains why the UNHRC has raised questions regarding discrimination against women, violence against minorities, the right to freedom of expression, and so on,
One area has escaped the attention of the authors of HRCP’s reports.
The most significant demand of the HRC members is that Pakistan should ratify the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance that came into force in 2010. Enforced disappearances are a crime under national law as well. Yet no one cares. There is official recognition of the problem, as seen in the commission appointed by the state to investigate the matter. But progress has been patchy at best, and relatives of the missing have yet to find answers, despite running from pillar to post. True, it is well known where many of the missing persons go but can one dare to say it out loud? The HRCP, which represents the national conscience, has frequently raised its voice on the issue.
Meanwhile, the state here continues to treat migrants with contempt. Deprived of documents, they cannot access a whole host of facilities including a decent education for their children. The UN convention spells out the rights of migrants in considerable detail, and had Pakistan been a signatory to it and implemented its provisos, its national human rights scorecard would have been that much better. Unfortunately, the state continues to eye every migrant with suspicion and little is done to ameliorate their condition.
HRC members have also demanded the abolition of the death penalty and amendments to the blasphemy law that was made harsher by Gen Zia. What happens in Geneva during the course of 2023 will reflect on our reputation worldwide.
But the real indictment will come next month when the HRCP’s annual human rights report is released. This is a remarkable document that has appeared unfailingly every year since 1989 and no government has been able to dismiss it as being of no consequence. Written by experts, the report has evolved over the years and covers practically every area of human life.
There is, however, one area which has somehow escaped the attention of its authors. That is language, an intrinsic part of a person’s being. Its link with education has been explicitly recognised by Unesco. Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reads, “In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.”
Unesco upholds the common belief advocated by linguists that a child learns best in his own language. We all know that the right to education has been upheld by numerous human rights documents.
One hopes that the HRCP will give the language issue some thought in its forthcoming report.
Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2023
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