PAKISTAN: Human rights defenders in Pakistan in need of defence

The killing of senior lawyer, Rashid Rehman, on May 7, 2014 in his office in Multan has once again brought into focus at home and abroad how little the Pakistani state values those who risk their lives for the promotion and protection of fundamental rights for all. Rehman was killed despite having earlier expressed serious concern for his safety after threats were issued by named and identified persons and despite seeking protection from the state. His call for security was ignored.

Despite ratification of important international treaties for the protection of human rights some four years ago, none of Pakistan’s criminal laws have been reviewed with a view to bringing them to conformity with the international obligations which Pakistan then entered. Worse, committed and courageous persons, men and women in Pakistan who have stood up for the rights of others have been abused, harassed, threatened, and in some instances killed on account of such legitimate activities. The impunity with which such abuses are carried out has made the defence of human rights a dangerous undertaking in Pakistan.

International protection of human rights defenders

Standing up for the rights of others have since December 9, 1998, been under the special protection of the international community. On that date, on the occasion of the 50thanniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the first UN instrument that explicitly recognizes the importance and legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders and lays down their right to effective protection.[1] In fact, it recognizes defending human rights as a right in itself and obliges States to protect human rights defenders against violations and abuses they suffer because of the nature of the activities they carry out.

Human rights defenders are persons or groups of persons who uncover human rights violations, bring them to public knowledge and campaign for redress for victims through peaceful and non-violent means. The rights they defend must be universal in nature, i.e. they must apply to all human beings without distinction of any kind, including race, ethnicity, religion, or gender; they may include civil and political rights, such as the right to be free from torture or the right to a fair trial; and economic and social rights, such as the right to clean water or education, and cultural rights, such as the right to use one’s own language.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is not a legally binding instrument but it possesses authority nonetheless: It asserts many of the rights that are already protected in other legally binding instruments including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT), both ratified by Pakistan in June 2010. It specifically articulates these rights with reference to human rights defenders. It also has considerable authority as it was adopted by the members of the UN General Assembly, reflecting universal commitment to the protection of human rights defenders. Undermining the role and worth of human rights defenders is a serious matter: As Kofi Anan, former UN Secretary General put it, “The Declaration rests on a basic premise: that when the rights of human rights defenders are violated, all our rights are put in jeopardy and all of us are at  risk”.[2]

Everyone has the moral responsibility to protect human rights but the onus of protection of human rights falls primarily on the state. In addition, the state has the obligation to protect human rights defenders. The Declaration states unambiguously that states have the duty to protect human rights defenders against any violence, retaliation and intimidation as a consequence of their human rights work. Article 12(2) 2 of the Declaration states, “The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration, namely the monitoring and publicizing of human rights violations and seeking redress.”

In the most inclusive sense, all those in Pakistan who in a peaceful manner uncover any of the numerous human rights violations perpetrated in the country thus qualify as human rights defenders; in a stricter sense, Pakistan’s human rights defenders are journalists who report abuses; family members of victims of human rights violation who expose and fight violations; lawyers who stand up in court to defend them; and professional human rights workers whose chosen task it is to work to end human rights violations in the country. All of these persons are entitled to the full protection of the law by the government.

The reality for human rights defenders in Pakistan is very different. Agents of the state have not only been held responsible for a spate of human rights violations but have also reportedly hounded those who expose their wrongdoings, ignoring the legitimacy of, and need for, such work and the international commitment to protect it. Non-state actors, too, have committed a range of abuses of the rights of human rights defenders who document their abuses.

Human rights work, the monitoring, documenting, publicizing, campaigning against and fighting for justice in courts of law free from interference, has become risky as human rights activists are increasingly in the firing line of those whose wrongdoings they seek to uncover. This not only goes against the letter and spirit of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders to which Pakistan has committed itself as part of the international community adopting it in 1998, it also cuts the very lifeline that victims of grave abuse rely on most in their hour of need: human rights defenders who will stand up for them and support them in their quest for justice. The impunity with which human rights defenders have been harassed, threatened, injured and killed, violates the rights of human rights defenders to perform their work without fear of reprisal but also undermines the right to and hope for redress of victims of human rights violations.

The range of abuses of human rights defenders is vast: Journalists who uncover human rights violations as part of the peaceful exercise of their professional duties have been in the firing line of state and non-state actors as a recent report by Amnesty International documents. Lawyers, too, have been targeted: In 2013, two lawyers, Malik Jarrar was shot dead in Peshawar and Mian Muhammad Tariq was shot dead in Karachi. Advocate Rashid Rehman is not the first and sadly, will not be the last lawyer to suffer for their commitment to law and justice. Judges, particularly those adjudicating blasphemy cases, have been targeted when some members of the public had strong but misguided opinions on the issues involved. Even politicians who have spoken up on human rights issues have not been spared as the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti in early 2011 demonstrate. Amongst those defending the rights of women, a recent victim was Sahib Khatoon, who was reportedly killed in September 2013 by her husband who disapproved of her work with a women’s rights NGO in Ghotki district, Sindh.  Those who defend social and cultural rights have fared no better: Malala Yusufzai paid dearly for defending the rights of girls to education when she was shot and injured on 9 October 2012, in Swat; Perveen Rehman was murdered on 13 March 2013 by persons who disapproved of her commitment to development work in the slums of Karachi. Aid workers suffered abuse in large numbers, too. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 91 aid workers, including 20 women, were attacked in Pakistan from January to November 2013 alone, 29 of whom were killed. Eight polio workers were killed and 17 injured in the same period. Some eight polio workers seeking to ensure protection of children against polio were killed and 17 injured in the same period by hardliners who oppose such protection. Relatives of victims of enforced disappearance who have campaigned tirelessly for the recovery of their loved ones have themselves been beaten, injured and in some cases been subjected to the same fate of enforced disappearance. Defenders of human rights in Balochistan, including journalists, lawyers, members of the small human rights community in that province and family members of victims have been particularly targeted for abuse. In almost all of these instances, the perpetrators have escaped being held to account.

Recommendations to the Federal Government of Pakistan and provincial governments

The state has clearly violated a wide range of rights of human rights defenders including lawyers, journalists, social workers and ordinary people standing up for the rights of everyone in Pakistan. These rights include the rights to life and the right to liberty and security of the person, including the rights to be free from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention and enforced disappearance. All these rights are guaranteed to people in Pakistan in the Constitution of Pakistan and Pakistani legal statutes. In addition, Pakistan has entered international commitments when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment (CAT). Both international treaties were ratified by Pakistan in 2010 and are legally binding. Key rights guaranteed in the ICCPR include the inherent right to life (Article 6); the rights to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment (Article 7) and from arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 9). The Convention against Torture unconditionally prohibits the use of torture.

In addition, Pakistan committed itself to protecting and safeguarding the rights of human rights defenders as a member of the UN General Assembly which adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. Clearly, the state has not lived up to the commitments it then entered.  It is high time that such commitments are recalled and honoured.

It has also, in addition, failed to fulfil its obligation to exercise due diligence in protecting human rights defenders against abuses by private persons. The international understanding of state responsibility for human rights violations has significantly widened in recent years to include not only violations of human rights by state agents but also abuses by private actors which the state ignores. If the state fails to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish abuses, including harassment, beating and targeted killing of human rights defenders by private actors, it shares responsibility with the perpetrators under international human rights law. The Governments of Pakistan and the provincial governments have failed to take effective measures to prevent and end targeted killings of human rights activists. It has not sought to stop abuses of human rights defenders even when threats were publicly made or brought to its attention. Nor has any effort been made to end the virtual impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of such abuses.

The police and the judiciary have ignored attempts of victims or victims’ relatives to seek legal redress for human rights abuses suffered by human rights defenders, whether by state agents or private persons or groups, often breaking the law which prescribes that they take adequate action to bring the perpetrators to justice. As a result, impunity has persisted which encourages further abuses.

The Government of Pakistan, both at the federal and the provincial level, and all its agencies, are therefore called upon to honour commitments to protect the rights of human rights defenders and recognize the importance and legitimacy of their work. This includes instructing law enforcement and security forces to strictly abide by the law in all their actions throughout Pakistan. When the rights of human rights defenders are violated by state agents, such violations must be promptly investigated with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice. Steps must also be taken to prevent a recurrence of such violations. At the same time, adequate steps must be taken by the state to protect human rights defenders against abuses by non-state actors.

Angelika Pathak was former Pakistan researcher with Amnesty International; she can be reached at

[1] Full name of the declaration: Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by General Assembly Resolution A/RES/53/144.

[2] 14 September 1998 NGO/DPI Conference.