The year of declining human rights

Farhatullah Babar shares some observations from the HRCP’s latest report

The year of declining human rights
The annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on the status of human rights in the country in 2018 launched in Islamabad on Monday is a commentary on the unprecedented level to which key human rights indicators particularly freedom of expression, assembly and association have deteriorated in Pakistan during the last year.

Restrictions on media coverage were stepped up in the guise of “national security concerns,” it said as “journalists took increasingly to self-censorship, the distribution of a national newspaper was severely curtailed, and a media blackout was imposed on coverage of certain events.”

Right to free expression and association is next only to the right to life. A free exercise of these rights enables a citizen to protest against and seek remedies against the denial of all other rights without which the society will eventually decay.

According to the report, “Media coverage was severely inhibited and journalists intimidated into self-censorship, most specifically in reporting on abuses by government security and intelligence agencies as well as militants.” It also expressed concern over the move to form a unified media regulatory authority for all types of media to further restrict the freedom of the press.
The report says that suo motu interventions by the Supreme Court had proliferated but the promised reforms in the criminal justice system had been ignored

Freedom of expression has always been contested between political activists, academicians and an active civil society on the one hand and a security state bent on imposing controls in the name of national security on the other. Various pretexts and different tactics are employed to impose censorship in the digital space. Apart from arbitrary determination of ‘national security interests’ the online space has also been curtailed by unleashing ‘mob justice warriors’ to stifle dissenting voices and forcing self-censorship.

The ranking in the internet freedom declined in Pakistan in 2018 due to the “problematic cybercrime law, internet shutdowns, and cyber-attacks against political dissenters, justified on the grounds of national security,” it said. More than 150 violations, including verbal threats, killings, harassment, arrests, abductions, illegal confinements, and physical assaults, took place against journalists and media groups across the country during the year.

The report says that suo motu interventions by the Supreme Court had proliferated but the promised reforms in the criminal justice system had been ignored. It is worth pondering whether the manner of exercise of these powers had enhanced or actually undermined the human rights regime. When sitting on the bench, some honourable judges of the Supreme Court have often expressed the need to streamline the use of suo moto powers. However, when elevated as chief justices the enthusiasm for reforms seemed to wane.

Noting Pakistan’s commitment to the international bodies to “firmly uphold, promote and safeguard universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all,” the report expresses concern over dismal disconnect between promise and performance.

Pakistan has chosen to only ‘note’ key human rights principles but not firmly pledged to implement them. For instance, the reporting of investigation and prosecution of security forces that commit human rights violations has only been ‘noted’ but not firmly pledged. As a result, the security agencies remain outside the ambit of the law, parliamentary oversight and are unaccountable.

Pakistan has also not responded positively to requests for country visits from UN Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions, the protection of human rights while countering terrorism and torture. That explains why the internment centres in erstwhile tribal areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - also known as Guantanamo bay prisons of Pakistan - not only exist but are beyond any scrutiny and oversight.

Pakistan has ratified eight ILO fundamental conventions but never fully implemented them, the report stated highlighting the plight of labour and workers in Pakistan.

Then there was the observation that right to association was “undermined as workers of social movements and some with political affiliations were subjected to intimidation or detention on charges of sedition and terrorism.”

In the name of exercising right to freedom of association, Imran Khan in the opposition had blocked roads on the capital, held the parliament hostage for 126 days and kept away the Chinese president from visiting Pakistan. On Monday, just when the HRCP report was pointing at the shrinking space for free association, a retired brigadier recently inducted in the cabinet warned people of thrashing (chatrol) if they dared to assemble in federal capital in exercise of the same right.

In the realm of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the report has noted “no noticeable abatement” in violence against religious minorities.

During the year the Islamabad High Court ruled that all citizens should be identified by their faith and applicants for government jobs should declare their faith for eligibility. As a result, NADRA has amended the CNIC form to make it mandatory for an Ahmadi to declare himself as ‘non-Muslim.’ Atif Mian was sacked from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) following a backlash over his faith.

The report says that the government’s response to the rise of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) is based on reading into its demands “more than its leadership had ever demanded” and harassing “anyone who said hello to its leaders.” The total media blackout of the PTM’s mammoth public meeting in Miranshah just a day before seemed to confirm not only the security state’s paranoia with the youth movement for rights, but also fears of the media covering a narrative different from the state’s.

The writer has served on the Human Rights Committee of the Senate