Challenges of Employing Human Rights Laws in Pakistan

Waleed Awan

The application of human rights laws in Pakistan remains a daunting challenge for the state. Recent Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports on the state of human rights in Pakistan depict a number of grave violations of human dignity and rights. According to a 2019 Amnesty International report, “the government of Pakistan has failed to uphold its commitments to legislate against torture and enforced disappearances occurring in the state.” Violence against women and girls continues to be widespread, fueled by myopic portrayals of women in the media, under-representation in the workplace, and a lack of access to basic maternal health care in most areas. Attempts to restrict child marriage were decimated in Parliament. Religious minorities are still being prosecuted for blasphemy and are being attacked by radical groups. The total literacy rate in Pakistan is around 59 percent, with less than 47 percent of women literate. There is a clear lack of respect for and awareness of human rights, as well as an overall disregard for responsibilities to fellow citizens.

Violence against women, girls, and transgender people is more common in Pakistan’s KPK and Baluchistan provinces. According to the Human Rights Watch report 2020 statistics, human rights defenders estimate that approximately 1,000 women are killed in honour killings each year. Domestic violence cases increased 200 percent from January to March 2020, according to data from domestic violence helplines across Pakistan, and worsened during the Covid-19 lockdowns after March of the same year. In 2020, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded 430 cases of honour killing, with 148 men and 363 women victims.

Abduction, physical assault, rape, and murder continued to be perpetrated against women and girls. According to the Human Rights Watch report 2021, child marriage remains a serious problem in Pakistan; 21 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, and 3 percent are married before the age of 15. In June 2019, the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court announced the establishment of 1,016 courts in Pakistan to hear domestic violence cases. Maya, a 19-year-old transwoman, was shot dead by her father in Nowshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in June 2019.

In the country, where two transwomen were shot and seriously injured in June 2021 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there is an overall lethargy and insensitivity on women’s and transgender rights. Since 2015, at least 65 transgender women have been killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, according to native human rights organizations.

However, some heinous incidents have shaken the nation’s consciousness; in September 2020, nationwide protests took place to demand police reform after the Lahore Police Chief made a public statement suggesting that a woman who was gang-raped in front of her children on a Punjab highway was at fault because she should not have been travelling “without her husband’s permission.” In the country, reports of sexual abuse and violence against children are of particular concern. The Human Rights Ministry launched a nationwide awareness campaign for “prevention of child sexual abuse” in July of last year. From January to June 2020, a children’s rights organization called Sahil reported an average of more than six cases of child sexual abuse each day across Pakistan. Sohail Ayaz, a convicted sexual predator from the United Kingdom, was arrested in Peshawar in October 2019 for sexually abusing 30 minors. Since his return to Pakistan, Ayaz had been working as a consultant for the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The lower house of Parliament blocked a bill in May to raise the minimum marriage age for girls to 18 years, in line with the minimum marriage age for men. The Punjab provincial government passed a domestic workers protection act in January, prohibiting the employment of minors under the age of 15 in households. Children, on the other hand, were still being hired as domestic labourers across Pakistan.

Such legislation appears to lack a bit of the goal of both punishing and preventing crimes and violations of human rights and dignity. A key safety net missing in the implementation of human rights law is a lack of awareness, underdeveloped legal mechanisms, victim incapacity due to a lack of economy, education, and access to justice systems, as well as a culture of taboo and fear surrounding reporting such crimes or abuse becoming public, resulting in victim shaming in the majority of cases. Violence against journalists, human rights lawyers, social workers, and activists continues to be a major source of concern. With the promulgation of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance, 2019, the risk of enforced disappearance has increased in the province. The ordinance allows for extrajudicial torture, captivity, and detention by state agencies, and may enable those in positions of power to abuse their power; the ordinance is currently being challenged in Supreme Court of Pakistan

Ahmad Mustafa Kanju, an activist from Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab province, was abducted from his home in January 2019. Two journalists from Karachi went missing for a month in March. Suleman Farooq Chaudhry, an engineering graduate, went missing in October near Islamabad. Idris Khattak, a human rights defender and former Amnesty International consultant, was kidnapped in November near Swabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Shafiq Ahmed, a lawyer, was kidnapped and tortured for 17 days in December.

Hundreds of people who had gone missing were also released throughout the year. According to Human Rights Watch, Pakistan has over 4600 prisoners on death row, making it one of the world’s largest populations facing execution. Since Pakistan lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014, at least 511 people have been executed.

A critical analysis of Pakistan’s constitutional framework and human rights legislation reveals a significant gap between policy and implementation. On paper, the establishment of the National Commission for Human Rights (“NCHR”) was a significant step toward promoting and protecting the Human Rights enshrined in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s Constitution of 1973. The Government of Pakistan established the NCHR to fulfil its international commitments and obligations under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) Status, which facilitates Pakistan’s exports to the EU.In addition, Pakistan moved to uphold this pledge, ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and signing both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) (UNCAT). Articles 8 to 28 of Pakistan’s constitution address basic human rights provision and state protection. From December 2015 to February 2020, the Ministry of Human Rights published a summary of complaints, petitions, and Suo motu notices.

It reports 4133 complaints filed against HR violations throughout Pakistan, as well as 652 Suo motu actions taken by the Ministry of Human Rights. Among these, 1783 complaints are in the hearing stage. In the early stages, 1674 Suo motu and complaints are being investigated, and 1328 complaints have been disposed of. The majority of them involve honour killings, child abuse, and rapes.

The question remains, however, as to why there is such a large implementation gap between these laws. Poverty and social inequities, discrimination, perpetual conflict and violence, impunity, democracy deficits, weak institutions and a culture of silence, and a lack of awareness on rights and duties at the citizen level are among the major and prominent challenges Media and curriculum-based campaigns, as well as the use of mediation and dialogue-based strategies, are being used to bridge the trust gap between the government and human rights activists. Political actors’ commitment to improving security, representation, and human rights issues in the country is also required to ensure that any constitutional and legislative provisions override cultural and social constraints to ensure justice is served.


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