TFT SPECIAL: Discourse Between Academia, Justice Sector A Healthy Trend

TFT SPECIAL: Discourse Between Academia, Justice Sector A Healthy Trend
A national conference organised by the Ministry of Health Services and the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan on calibrating population and resources is taking place in Pakistan on July 14 and 15, 2023, to take stock of progress, developments and challenges since the first human rights case on population was taken up by the Supreme Court in 2018 (Human Rights Case No 17599 of 2018).

This case also set up a task force to address the issue of growing population because of its direct impact on the rights of all people, on their quality of life, education, health and access to opportunities, especially, for women and children and gave a comprehensive list of recommendations covering eight thematic focus areas including but not limited to ensuring universal access to family planning and reproductive health services, legislative reforms, support from Ulema, advocacy and curriculum and training amongst others.

Five years on, it is important to take stock of what has happened since then? What steps have been taken for compliance? Where do things stand today? What and where the challenges are? And where do we go from here?

This is not the first time the Ministry of Health Services and the Law and Justice Commission are hosting a conference on this issue. Prior to this a national symposium on alarming increase in population was also held in 2018.

With Pakistan set to be amongst the only eight countries that would contribute to fifty percent of the increase in the world’s population by 2050 and with a rapidly depleting state of natural resources that could sustain and provide quality of life and access to fundamental rights to people, population anxiety surely has become a serious issue deserving a collective action, discussion and response by all stakeholders coming together and understanding the intersection of law, policy and justice to address the enormity of this complex problem that has social, political, legal and even existential repercussions.

The Conference is a unique opportunity for the stakeholders in the justice & development sectors as well as in health, policy and academia to come together in relation to World Population Day 2023 for a holistic, inclusive and participatory discourse with speakers from population welfare department, representatives of the provincial task force, development sector experts, international speakers and members of academia.

The Law and Justice Commission was established via an ordinance in the year 1979. The Chief Justice of Pakistan serves ex officio as its chairman. The Commission is housed in the Supreme Court Building in Islamabad and its functions include amongst others, the study and review on a continuing systemic basis the statues and other laws with a view to making recommendations to the federal and provincial governments for improvement, modernisation and reform, in particular for making or bringing the laws into accord with changing needs of the society.

The Chief Justice in his ceremonial role as the head of the Commission will be present at the conference organised by the commission and the ministry of health services, which would enable the ministry and the speakers to have a unique opportunity to share their findings and new approaches towards addressing issues of population so that legal challenges arising out of our vulnerable context with precarious levels of population can find expression in jurisprudence of the apex court in line with global trends and local implications.
While the Chief Justice’s ceremonial presence has brought this issue to the fore, let us as members of civil society and concerned citizens push for legal, conceptual as well as policy reforms that can finally look at and place this issue as a human rights issue above all.

A healthy discourse between industry experts and practitioners as well as members of academia in the justice sector is a sign of strength of institutions that engage with new knowledge and approaches however, unfortunately, in Pakistan, the aversion to academic discourse in justice sector is partly responsible for poor quality of arguments and analysis we often see.

Academia cannot be relegated to operate in silos and it is crucial that bench and bar both engage with new approaches being developed in academia particularly on issues affecting our fundamental rights. Had it not been for these approaches, strategic litigation in cases like Shahla Zia v Wapda where right to life was expounded to include right to healthy environment, would not be found in our jurisprudence. Consequently, our jurisprudence would be poorer and would not stand the test of times to evolve with growing needs of society. Reflection, therefore, is an exercise that should always be encouraged and if it brings all stakeholders under one roof, then even better because such opportunities of engagement are so rare.

If anything at all, there is a need to enhance engagement and opportunities of discourse and debate between justice sector and academia and not reduce it. World over, several examples can be found to show how apex courts or their associated commissions take a lead on hosting dialogues to promote discourse and debate in their quarters. In most cases, it happens in a regional context so that ideas and experiences from different countries of the region can be brought together for shared learning and development such as in the African Union.

In 2014, for instance, the Tennessee Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission hosted its Annual Pro Bono Legal Clinics Conference at the Nashville Public Library. In 2021 Jud Mathews, a professor of law at Penn State Law in University Park, presented his paper at a virtual conference organized by the Center for Constitutional Studies a research center created by Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice on ‘International Conversation on the Proportionality Test’. The virtual conference brought together around 20,000 legal scholars and students from across the globe to share research on this topic and explore the themes. Guest speakers and presenters included scholars from across Latin America, the United States, and Europe.

In 2022, the Supreme Courts from Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam came together for two days for the first ‘Justice for Wildlife: Regional Chief Justices Conference on Wildlife Crime’, hosted by the People’s Supreme Court of Laos. Also in 2022, the Palace of Justice which is home to the Supreme Court of Vienna, the Procurator General’s Office, the Vienna Higher Regional Court of Appeal and the Senior Public Prosecutor’s Office for Vienna and the Vienna Regional Court for Civil Matters, hosted the Justitia Awards ceremony organized by The Women in Law Initiative, Vienna.

Pakistan’s approach to such discourse however remains very conservative especially in the justice sector where a lawyer who argues in court is the only one considered viable and worthy of being considered an ‘actual’ lawyer! Very few judgements engage with the work of writers who are subject experts and who have an academic grounding in their field. In recent past, judges have quoted authors Maryam S Khan, Yasser Kureshi, Catherine McKinnon and Palwasha Shahab in their judgements but such examples are few and far between.

An issue like population anxiety that has multisectoral dynamics including social, economic, legal and political is one such issue that necessitates that it be taken up holistically and engaged with conceptually so that institutional responses to matters arising of it can be approached with the changing lens, dynamics and needs of the society.

The ministry of health services together with law and justice commission of Pakistan took a step in that direction back in 2018 and it is only right that periodic reflection of prior work, challenges and accomplishments is taken stock of so that strategies can be reevaluated for effective implementation and outcomes and while the Chief Justice’s ceremonial presence has brought this issue to the fore, let us as members of civil society and concerned citizens push for legal, conceptual as well as policy reforms that can finally look at and place this issue as a human rights issue above all, with implications for women, children, climate change, environmental degradation and access to opportunities for all.

The writer is diversity and Inclusion advocate and founder of Women in Law Initiative Pakistan.