New threats to rights
By I.A. Rehman
TOMORROW (Dec 10), all better-governed nations of the world are likely to examine ways and means of improving their human rights standards. In Pakistan, on the other hand, a persistent decline in respect for human rights will be a major cause for concern.
Some people, especially those in authority, may find it hard to believe that human rights are under increased threat. They could recall the steps recently taken to promote the human rights of Pakistani citizens. Let us first see what benefits government initiatives have offered to ordinary citizens.The present government earned considerable goodwill by ending the policy of indifference towards international human rights instruments. By the end of 2009, it had ratified both the covenants of 1966 (the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the Convention against Torture. It had also signed the Convention on the Rights of the Disabled Persons. Since the conventions against racial discrimination (CERD) and discrimination against women (CEDAW) and on the rights of children (CRC) had been ratified earlier, Pakistan could claim to have ratified the core human rights instruments.
However, the government has shown little interest in fulfilling the responsibilities assumed by becoming a party to the human rights treaties. People still do not have the right to work, women do not have the right to equal wage and social security is inadequate and limited to a small part of the population. Respect for civil and political rights has declined and torture remains as endemic as ever. One does not know the status of the report under the Covenant on Economic Rights that Pakistan was to submit by June 30 this year.
It might be said in the government`s defence that human rights are unlikely to get priority in a state that is fighting for its survival. Such myopic ideas must be given up forthwith because effective human rights guarantees will strengthen people`s loyalty to the state, promote peace within society and strengthen the state`s capacity to meet challenges to its integrity.
Notice may also be taken of the additions made by the 18th Amendment to the fundamental rights inscribed in the constitution. The recognition of the right to fair trial, the right to know and the right to free primary and secondary education can only be welcomed but it is not clear how many seasons will pass before these new entitlements can be enjoyed by all citizens. Considering the government`s poor record in ensuring due implementation of the law against sexual harassment at the workplace or even in matching the achievements of civil society organisations, and the scandal surrounding the lapse of the Domestic Violence Bill, the space for optimism is minimal.
In normal circumstances one might have been content with a plea for the creation of a special cell for expediting implementation of domestic and international human rights instruments. But Pakistan has not seen normality for a long time. At the moment, there is an urgent need to address the situation caused by new forms of derogation of human rights.
First, the right to redress against human rights abuse has suffered an unpardonable eclipse. Cases of involuntary disappearances are becoming uglier and uglier. Some agencies that are regularly paid out of the taxpayers` money have declared that they are answerable neither to the executive nor the judiciary. They claim to be above law.
Indeed, no law is believed to be in the field to regulate the working of some of the state`s most powerful functionaries. That the Supreme Court`s notice-server can be denied entry to an office under state control reveals the extent to which the right to redress has been extinguished.
No detailed statement is needed to explain the importance of the scheme of redress in any system of law and human rights. A state`s adherence to human rights is measured not only by it formal recognition of these rights but also, and more essentially, by the efficiency and effectiveness of its redress mechanisms. The people of Pakistan have had a long experience of redress mechanism ever since the British authors of the Criminal Procedure Code inserted Section 491 into it over a century ago. If the highest court in the land cannot question some state functionaries in a human rights case, then Pakistan is without a redress system worth the name. A grave threat to people`s rights is manifest.
Secondly, in the fight against terror the principle of compensation for wrongful denial of liberty has been forgotten. Only a few years ago, the high courts, especially the Sindh High Court, had started ordering payment of compensation for illegal detention. The practice has apparently been suspended/ discontinued.
Meanwhile, big powers (such as the US and Britain) are coming round to the idea of compensating and rehabilitating those detained on suspicion of being terrorists or handed over to third parties.
Not so in Pakistan. Take the case of Kamal Shah of Dir. Kamal Shah says he was picked up from his village and transported to Bagram air base in Afghanistan . After three years of interrogation, he was found innocent (or picked up by mistake) but he had to suffer captivity for another two years. On repatriation to Pakistan, he was kept in a Peshawar jail for some time before he was released. Meanwhile, one of his two wives deserted him and his old father ran up debts amounting to Rs60,000 to Rs70,000 on attempts to trace him. Result: Kamal Shah cannot go back home till the debt is repaid.
It is possible Kamal Shah`s case is not as clear-cut as he says but somebody in authority has the duty to verify his claim and secure him due compensation. There are many others who have suffered unauthorised detention but they do not open their mouths for fear of reprisal/vengeance by their erstwhile tormentors.
Thirdly, while it is possible to get away with instigation to murder (announcement of reward for killing Gen Musharraf and Aasia Bibi), Sherry Rehman`s proposal for a review of the Penal Code`s chapter on `Offences related to religion` cannot be discussed dispassionately. She has expressed no intention of examining any divine injunction; she is pleading only for a review of manmade laws, including a law that has been found to be violative of Islamic injunctions by its primary mover himself.
The ongoing campaign against Sherry Rehman is the height of intolerance as it seeks to taboo public discourse. History offers many instances of societies perishing completely under the weight of such intolerance. Its verdict on any society wallowing in obscurantism and intolerance, now or in the future, is unlikely to be any different.