Islamabad: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) raised several pertinent concerns in its 2019 annual report on the State of Human Rights in Pakistan. However, the report overlooks several major milestones towards securing and safeguarding the rights of vulnerable groups that were reached in the past year in Pakistan. Although the process of changing mindsets, laws and institutions is one that is long and slow, it is critical keep sight and track of all the steps and progress along the way. To simply deny progress being made in confronting the massive challenges confronting Pakistan today as a result of decades of neglect itself raises question of intent.
While the report accurately cites an alarmingly high number of cases of violence against women and children, it does not account for the important institutional as well as legislative measures that have been taken in the last year to safeguard and promote their rights. This includes the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act 2020 which was introduced in 2019, as well as a comprehensive National Action Plan against Child Abuse that has been prepared by the MOHR and was submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office. Important steps have also been taken towards the criminalization of domestic violence and related awareness campaigns in the media.
Moreover, the last year has featured some important advancements with regards to the rights of prisoners in Pakistan. In 2019, the Ministry of Human Rights released a landmark report on Prison Reforms. The Islamabad High Court has constituted an Implementation Commission on Prison Reforms on the basis of this report, which is being led by the Ministry of Human Rights. MOHR has also been working towards developing SOPs and other emergency measures to protect prisoners during the Covid-19 outbreak.
With regards to the right to freedom of press and curbs on political dissent, a very important new legislation on the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals was discussed with journalists and media professionals in 2019 and approved in principle by the Cabinet in early 2020. The bill is now in the process of being finalized through the relevant process before being tabled in the National Assembly. It features several unprecedented protections for journalists and media professional in Pakistan – and could play an important role in improving the freedom of press and information in the country.
Finally, the report emphasizes the lack of freedom of religion in Pakistan. While violence against religious minorities continues to run rampant in the country, several measures taken by the state in 2019 have the potential to lead to a shift in societal attitudes and mindsets in the long run. This includes the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor; laying the foundations for Pakistan’s first Sikh university; and the reopening and renovation of Hindu temples. The government has taken steps to address educational material with discriminatory content against religious minorities; and it is in the process of bringing 30,000 madrassas under government control to mainstream them in the field of education. Finally, the acquittal of several high profile blasphemy cases such as Aasia Bibi and Wajih-ul Hassan, also established an important precedent.
The outbreak of the Coronavirus has begun to cast its shadow on human rights in the country. However, the Government is taking important steps to ensure that the marginalized and vulnerable are taken care of during the emergency. Ehsaas has launched the largest emergency cash disbursement programme in Pakistan’s history. Moreover, the Ministry of Human Rights has prepared a policy brief on the gendered impact and implications of Covid 19. It is focusing on protecting the rights of the elderly, the disabled, and the economically and socially vulnerable by preparing special messaging, guidelines and policies that place a central importance on their particular concerns and issues.
So while we still confront many human rights challenges in Pakistan, we are moving to not only recognize them but also to meet these challenges through legislation where needed, through awareness and sensitization campaigns and through efforts to change mindsets. It is unfortunate that HRCP chose not to recognize the progress being made.