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Human rights and the future

Published Apr 17, 2013 05:05am


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THE Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s annual report was released last week. Unsurprisingly, it is a compendium of the country’s failures over the past year.

From freedom of thought and religion to freedom of movement, nearly every area seems to have suffered — and suffered tremendously. In 2012, 583 Pakistanis were killed in 213 sectarian terrorist attacks; 913 girls were killed in ‘honour’ killings; 14 journalists died while doing their jobs; over 200 factory workers perished in a factory fire.

These are the stories of the dead; of those that lived, of 58 million labourers, a paltry 2.1 million were registered for social security benefits and the majority remained unemployed. Only a bare 42 per cent were educated, even when ‘being educated’ is reduced to its barest minimum.

There were problems with the air Pakistanis breathed, but the 10 centres set up for air monitoring in Lahore, Quetta and Karachi were shut down without explanation. The water in Keenjhar Lake was deemed unfit for human consumption, but it is likely to be drunk anyway, as millions around the country want for any sort of water at all.

It is a devastating account of a dismal year, where a sitting prime minister was sacked, hundreds died in bombings and many others perished as the random targets of street criminals, vengeful neighbours, neglectful doctors and the vagaries of living in a society where rights are a luxury that most cannot afford.

In the section devoted to rights-related legislative endeavours, the report relates the story of two commissions that were aimed at changing this very status quo: the inaccessibility of rights for those most in need.

In May 2012, the law sponsoring the creation of the National Commission on Human Rights came into force. However, as weeks and months and the whole year and then the tenure of the elected government elapsed, the commission could not be implemented.

Members were never named, work never begun and so no comprehensive governmental body exists in this country of approximately 180 million to monitor human rights violations.

The National Commission on the Status of Women did become autonomous last year, thanks to an act of parliament. However, none of the four bills that it introduced in parliament were able to make their way through the legislative process.

These included the Hindu Marriage Bill of 2011, the Christian Marriages Amendment Bill, 2011, and the Christian Divorce Amendment Bill of 2011. These bills hoped to provide better rights-protection for women from the minorities.

And so the report continues, detailing in stoic terms the painstaking story of carefully recorded inadequacies and a detailed denouement of promises unfulfilled.

To the cursory reader, the pile of papers is high and the plot repetitive; there are perhaps only minor gradations of worse, and worse still, between the report produced in 2011 and the one in 2010.

Too much of the recent past has been a tale of millions languishing in Pakistan. It is tempting to discard and shrug with resignation. What indeed is the relevance of rights in moments such as these in a Pakistan so steeped in violence, so stalked by inflation and so untouched by law?

It is a difficult question to answer, but there are some answers. The power of disorder and chaos lies in its ability to overwhelm.

In reading, watching, listening and seeing acts of violence, individual Pakistanis see only bits and pieces of a polarised picture: they know things are bad, or terrible, they know that they want change; beyond this, however, they cannot conceive of the totality of the problem, opine beyond their own existence in a Pakistani city or suburb or village as to how the rest of the country fares and exactly how and where the cracks in the institutions are.

The picture is completed when the symptoms of the problem — the child begging in the streets, a raging mob outside a Christian locality — are seen in the context of a failing system. The report may be sad reading, but it lays out the causes of the problems, the sources of the failures and, humbly, the possibilities of a solution.

It is unlikely that those who are hoping to lead the country after the next few months will read it or pause at its recommendations. Other than those that impact Pakistan’s relations with this or that ally, few election candidates have engaged in the sort of substantive discussion about human rights and the rule of law that such a picture should provoke.

Beyond platitudes about unpaid taxes and fervent promises to end the violence, few have gone into the specifics that stare back from the pages of the report.

Not one has as yet provided a plan that would address the fact that 5.1 million children are out of school and over half of them are girls. No one has yet mentioned how the little girls under 16, who make up 74 per cent of the brides in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, will be prevented from dying in childbirth, being sold in marriage or being killed in domestic violence.

Hardly any election candidate has as yet mentioned the figure of 2.8 per cent, which is the percentage of GDP that Pakistan spends on educating its children, both girls and boys.

In these specifics, numbers and figures, unimplemented commissions and ignored laws, lie the questions for which Pakistani voters must demand answers, specific responses to exact numbers so that the path to the future can become, if not clear, a little less murky.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


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Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (6) Closed

BRR Apr 17, 2013 05:18am
Islam means peace and humans don't need rights.
Khanm Apr 17, 2013 08:50am
There are no rights of any kind for ordinary Pakistani in Pakistan. You can kill some in broad day light and go Scot free... You have to be the member of this exclusive clubs called Pakistan governments, feudal club. Agencies, politicians, business tycoons....... I am the inferior of any man whose rights I trample under foot.
Qureshi Apr 17, 2013 09:38am
A shameless country purporting to be a key player of Islamic values. Sadly only in lip service and far from it in actual deeds.
mk Apr 17, 2013 12:39pm
instead of fighting unnecessary battle with neighbor country, we should focus on our own development and its time to give mullahs and hardliners a long rest.
Anjaan Apr 17, 2013 01:24pm
These so called Human rights reports on Pakistan are British sponsored, never give the full picture. Not a single report in the past five decades ever provided data on how the Hindu population in Pakistan was systematically decimated, through forced conversion and killing.
Parvez Apr 18, 2013 06:42pm
Human Rights is a far off dream.............even slightly caustic comments on a this DAWN site do not see the light of day.