Liberties lost

Published December 10, 2023

AS Pakistan marks Human Rights Day today, it confronts a troubling panorama of human rights violations. Rights bodies, local and international, have consistently drawn attention to the country’s abysmal record but to no avail.

Despite constitutional guarantees, the reality for many Pakistanis is a pervasive sense of insecurity. The use of enforced disappearances as a tool against dissent is particularly alarming. With at least 2,210 unresolved cases, the state’s role in these disappearances paints a picture of repression.

The failure to enact legislation criminalising enforced disappearances, despite repeated attempts, suggests a lack of political will at the highest levels. The cases of journalists Nafees Naeem, Arsalan Khan, Imran Riaz and Baloch student Bebagr Imdad, who were all abducted — some for months — and later released, highlight a disturbing trend of targeting critical voices.

Some progress was made, with safety laws for journalists passed first by the Sindh Assembly followed by the National Assembly in late 2021, but their implementation remains a distant dream. The curtailing of freedom of assembly and expression is another area of grave concern. The authorities’ use of force to disperse peaceful protests, and the intimidation and arbitrary detention of protesters, all indicate shrinking space for civil liberties.

Religious intolerance continues to ignite violence, with blasphemy allegations leading to the lynching of both minorities and Muslims. The Supreme Court’s warnings against the misuse of blasphemy laws are welcome, yet much more is needed to protect the vulnerable from societal prejudices.

Violence against women remains a pervasive issue. While the conviction of Zahir Jaffer for the murder of Noor Mukadam is a significant step, systemic changes are crucial for addressing the broader issue of gender-based violence. The lack of enactment of the Domestic Violence Bill speaks volumes about the state’s failure to uphold women’s rights.

The rights of transgender individuals, despite legal recognition, continue to be ignored. The challenge to the Transgender Rights Act and the continued violence against this community reveal deep-seated societal and institutional biases. Torture and custodial deaths remain unchecked, and the passage of the Torture and Custodial Death Act, while a positive development, requires rigorous enforcement.

This bleak landscape of human rights is reflective of a deeper malaise affecting the country’s democratic fabric. The manipulation of democratic processes, the establishment’s shadow over political life, and the selective application of justice all contribute to an environment where human rights are easily trampled upon.

As Pakistan prepares for national elections, it is imperative that these issues are brought to the forefront. The protection of human rights is not just a moral obligation but a prerequisite for a stable and functioning democracy. On this Human Rights Day, let Pakistan recommit itself to these ideals, not just in rhetoric but in concrete actions

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2023

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