PAKISTAN: One step forward, two steps backward in the march towards real democracy

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission on the occasion of Human Rights Day

This year’s theme for the Human Rights Day is ‘Stand up for someone’s rights today! The statement could not be better suited to what is happening in Pakistan, where human rights defenders are being increasingly targeted for speaking out. Branded traitors and foreign agents, these agents of change are ostracized and blacklisted. Sadly, despite the valiant efforts of human rights defenders and that if civil society, the human rights situation has not changed much. Pakistan continues to top all the wrong indexes on gender disparity, infant mortality, and the number of executions.

The year 2016 has not seen any change from the previous years, in terms of respect and upholding human rights. Torture in custody, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, persecution of religious minorities, violence against women, honour killings, child labour, strong laws against the freedom of expression, denial of labour rights, increase in poverty, increase in infant mortality, denial of education and health facilities, and huge corruption at all levels is what this year has witnessed.

As the year draws to an end, a ray of hope has shone though the grim political situation of Pakistan. As General Raheel Sharif, Chief of Army Staff (COAS), retires from his lucrative position, he is said to be the first General to have handed down the baton to the next COAS, which is generally not a tradition, as the Military establishment always forces civilian governments to extend the tenure of the COAS. The transfer of power through the constitutional process is hailed as a promising sign for the establishment of stronger democratic institutions.

The State has ratified different mandates of the UN, including ICCPR, ICESCR, and UNCAT in 2010, and pledged on many occasions that local laws will be amended according to UN obligations. However, since then no law of the country has been changed. Instead, the government of Pakistan has blatantly violated Article 6 of ICCPR by withdrawing the moratorium on executions.

During the past 24 months it has executed 433 prisoners on death row, with about 8,000 prisoners remaining on death row that are set to be executed in the coming years. The moratorium on executions was lifted with the excuse of eliminating terrorism in the wake of the killings of 149 school children. However, not even 30 alleged terrorists have been executed so far, and rest of the executed persons have not been terrorists and have even been those denied fair trial.

Right to life as enshrined in the Constitution has been denied to the people of Pakistan in many ways, be it through enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings or executions. With more than 400 hangings since the lifting of the moratorium on execution on December 27, 2014, Pakistan ranks third in the number of executions behind Saudi Arabia and China. Given serious fair trial concerns, executions are travesties to justice. Insufficient access to lawyers and endemic police torture to extract confessions severely undermine due process and fair trial.

The Ghulam brother’s case is a shocking example of the severity of miscarriage of justice in the country. Exactly one year after the two siblings were hung, the Supreme Court declared them innocent of all charges. The Court, finding several anomalies in several witness accounts, acquitted and exonerated the brothers of all charges, only to find that they had already been executed despite their appeal remaining pending in the Supreme Court.

In another case, a schizophrenic patient was ruled “not insane” by the Supreme Court. Justice and equity – two pillars in the institution of justice – have been done away with by the bastions of justice themselves.

The year also marks the onset of the sunset clause for Military courts, according to news reports. Military courts will not be getting an extension. The courts were established through the 21st constitutional amendment and have so far tried hundreds of militants. The Military court is said to have convicted 104 civilians in secret tribunals. Of those, 100 have been sentenced to death, and four to life imprisonment.

Though the government has failed to upgrade the criminal justice system, one still hopes that the Judiciary partakes the responsibility of containing militancy by speeding up proceedings while allowing due course of law to take place. The judges of the lower and higher Judiciary should take the opportunity to secure fundamental rights of the people while upholding rule of law and justice.

Given that Pakistan Military is extricating itself from civil matters, the responsibility now vests squarely with the civil polity to put its house in order. The State, however, lacks conviction and political will to ensure the rights of citizens; case in point is the decision on Protection of Pakistan Act, 2016, which has lapsed on July 2016. Despite the lapse, the government is still undecided whether or not to extend the Act, originally designed to help armed forces clamp down on militants.

Furthermore, despite its obligations under UNCAT, to enact an Anti-torture law, the Pakistani government has been dragging its feet in promulgating such an Act. The AHRC has been very vocal on the conspicuous absence of the law and has been lobbying for enactment for quite some time. Sadly, due to the lack of political will, the Bill has not received presidential consent. The Bill against the custodial torture has been pending before the National Assembly since 2015, where the ruling party, PML-N, despite a two-third majority, has resisted putting the bill up for even a discussion. It is said that the security establishment does not want to pass an anti-torture law. Though the Senate has passed the anti-torture Bill it cannot be implemented till both the houses pass it.

The incessant rise in trends extrajudicial killings, custodial torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests by the State speak volumes about the state of human rights in the country. Ostracized by the State itself, vulnerable citizens are unable to survive in the country. Each day thousands of lives are lost due to illegal State action, honour related crimes, violence against women, militancy, and attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

In different incidents like, bomb blasts, terrorist attacks, FC and police actions the dead bodies of 152 persons from LEA and 181, persons were killed.

In the extra judicial killings 494 persons were killed mostly from Sindh where Pakistan Rangers is conducting operation. From Balochistan, till November 30—81 bodies were found, most of them were unknown who were supposed to be from missing persons.

Enforced Disappearances-An inquiry commission for missing persons has released its report for the year 2016, which states that 1,276 persons are still reported missing. The report states that of these 1,276 persons, 65 were traced to be in the custody of law enforcement agencies. Enforced disappearances erode the structure of equity and human rights that form the basis of justice systems throughout the world. By providing impunity, the State has itself become party to the murder of its citizens, denying them the right to fair trial and due process. The rule of law is severely undermined when the State becomes adversarial against its own citizens. The State must take notice of mounting international calls for release of innocent victims and to present those found guilty before the court of law.

According to Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, from January to July 2016, 510 cases of missing persons were reported, in the last seven months, or an average of 72.86 cases per month. The month wise break up is 66 in February, 44 in March, 99 in April, 91 in May, 60 in June and 94 in July.

But according to the unofficial sources particularly from the different NGOs working on enforced disappearances, nationalists, political and religious groups about 693 persons were missing after their arrest by uniformed or plain clothed persons. From Balochistan Province, 390, Sindh, 73, FATA 98, KhyberPakhtoon kha province (KPK) 74, and from Punjab 58.

The World Rule of Law Index has scored Pakistan at the bottom in terms of order and security, i.e 113 out of 113, whereas on the scale of fundamental rights Pakistan has a scored a measly 101; overall Pakistan has ranked 106 of the 113 countries surveyed by the Index.

State of Youth-The youth of Pakistan, which constitutes 60% of the country’s population, is ironically also the most neglected group. According to the Global Youth Development Index and Report 2016 Pakistan ranks a dismal 154 among 183 countries, Pakistan performed even worse than war-torn and terrorism-plagued Syria, which stood at 137.

State of Women-The women of Pakistan also continue suffer from State neglect and apathy. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan has been ranked the second-worst country in the world for gender inequality for the second consecutive year. Pakistan is also the worst performing state in South Asia and has been so for the last couple of years. The Report found that the gender parity in terms of health education, economic opportunity, and political empowerment between the genders has been deteriorating. Pakistan’s ranking in the Economic Participation and Opportunity and Education Attainment indexes have not changed since 2015.

For its part, the State has been content with enacting legislation, with enforceability being perhaps another battle that the civil society will have to undertake. The enactment of a plethora of gender friendly laws has done little to change the patriarchal mindset rampant in the country, and offers little or no reprieve to victims of gender violence. Without a change in the mindset and effective implementation of the laws and the institutions responsible for implementing them, Pakistan’s women can only suffer in silence.

Despite participation of women in the political process, women are seldom appointed to decision-making positions. Of 103 current judges in the superior courts, only three are female. The percentage of women judges in superior courts is 2.91 percent, as against the 33 percent required by the UN Beijing Conference of 1996, to which Pakistan is a signatory. To date no female judge of the High Court has been elevated to the level of a Supreme Court judge or Chief Justice of the four high courts; their male colleagues always supersede them.

According to the data collected by the activists, 367 women and 12 transgender were raped, whereas according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) up to October 51 men and 173 boys were raped or sexually abused.

State of Laborers in Pakistan –The labor and working class in Pakistan is also suffering from the vicious cycle of poverty brought in by economic meltdown, forcing laborers into the worst forms of servitude and slavery. The State is constitutionally obligated to protect the beleaguered laborers and safeguard their rights, but the State does little more than pay lip service to the cause. Merely enacting laws will not serve the purpose; the implementation of labor laws is the responsibility of the State and must be ensured at all costs. A laborer in Pakistan works under extremely hazardous conditions.

On November 2016, 26 laborers working at the Gaddani ship-breaking yard lost their lives, while another 100 workers were incinerated to death when the ship they were working on caught fire. A fact-finding committee commissioned by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) found that the workers were not provided with any safety gear and not even provided with food, water, or shelter during the tenure of work. The committee also found that the contractor Ghafoor and Company, in order to expedite the ship breaking, didn’t follow the safety procedure of emptying the fuel tank.

Freedom of Expression- Pakistan has become awfully quiet without free speech; more and more voices are silenced by legislation, self-censorship, and intimidation. Freedom of expression suffered a severe setback with the promulgation of Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, 2016. Rights activists view the law as the last nail in the coffin for freedom of expression in Pakistan. Such draconian laws make it impossible for citizens to express views without fear of repercussion or backlash from law enforcement agencies.

As the world marks Human Rights Day on 10th December 2016, the State of Pakistan should introspect on the state of human rights, law and order, and rule of justice. Why is it that despite a lapse of 10 years Pakistan has been unable to emerge as a rising democracy on the world map? Why is it that year after year Pakistan slides in its international rankings in human development and rights? The lack of political will coupled with collapsing civil institutions has brought the country to the brink of becoming a failed State. The government of Pakistan will have to take serious actions in earnest if it wants to restore peace and tranquility in the State. A destabilized and militarized Pakistan is not favorable for the whole region, indeed the whole world.