A new United Nations report (A/HRC/36/31) warns that a growing number of human rights defenders around the world are facing reprisals for cooperating with the UN on human rights. The report, ‘Cooperation with the United Nations, its mechanisms and representatives in the field of human rights’, mentions Pakistan among the 29 countries that have retaliated in the past year against human rights defenders cooperating with the United Nations. The retaliations range from travel bans and asset-freezing, to detention and torture. Eleven of the States are current members of the Human Rights Council. Some have featured in the annual report on reprisals nearly every year since it began in 2010. All the cases highlighted in the report occurred from June 2016 to May 2017, involving persons and organizations that have used UN procedures, submitted communications under procedures established by human rights instruments, or provided legal or other assistance to other people.
With regard to Pakistan, the office of the UN Secretary-General criticized the government for not allowing even the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission to brief the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) during its 60th session on 18 April 2017. Apparently, the request by the Chairman for permission to travel to Geneva was denied on the basis that the national human rights institution was “not mandated to interact with the UN Committee on the present issue. Eventually the Commission was able to participate in a private meeting with the CAT via a video link on 18 April 2017.”
In its concluding observations, the Committee Against Torture recommended that Pakistan should: “take immediate measures to ensure that the National Commission for Human Rights is able to carry out its mandate fully and in an effective and independent manner, and in full conformity with the Principles relating to the status of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (Paris Principles), including allowing the Commission to meet in person with international human rights mechanisms abroad”.
According to the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour, the situation is “abhorrent”, with individuals communicating with the UN being abducted, tortured, detained or disappeared. As he presented the report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, he said: “We should see these individuals as the ‘canary in the coal mine’, bravely singing until they are silenced by this toxic backlash against people, rights and dignity – as a dark warning to us all.”
The report urges all States to stop reprisals, investigate existing allegations, provide effective remedies and adopt and implement measures to prevent recurrence. Moreover, beyond the grave impact on the life of persons concerned, the report underlines that the intimidation and retaliation also systematically undermine United Nations’ action on human rights, and shake partners’ trust in the organization.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) appreciates the report issued by the UN office on the situation of human rights defenders who face tremendous problems from the authorities for reporting cases of human rights abuses to the different UN mandate holders. The AHRC also lauds the concerns of the UN office in pointing out the plights of the human rights defenders in Pakistan, who are subjected to enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings and fictitious cases.
The AHRC also urges the government of Pakistan to arrange and provide protection to human rights defenders in the country. The government must release and recover the human rights defenders who have been disappeared after their arrests by law enforcement agencies, particularly from the military and intelligence agency custody. The rights of freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan, must be fully respected by the authorities in Pakistan.