Human rights violations on the rise in South Asia
KARACHI: Even though the present-day world is called a liberal world, the “global South” is still not a liberal society and human rights violations are constantly on the rise there.
These observations were made by Dr Azra Anjum, a former professor of political science at the University of Karachi, while speaking at a workshop titled “Implementing Human Rights in South Asia and Europe: policies and practices”. The workshop was organised at the University of Karachi’s Area Study Centre for Europe on Wednesday.
Dr Anjum’s paper was titled “Human Rights, humanity, and discrimination: A South Asian perspective”. She pointed out various discriminatory practices in South Asia, such as discrimination based on caste, gender, religion, and against the indigenous people which began with the advent of the colonial era.
These, she said, had a negative impact on the human rights picture of South Asia, pushing the region into social deprivation and further away from the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals. She underlined the urgent need for coming to grips with the situation at the state, regional, and international levels.
Caste-based discrimination, she said, had been a persistent form of discrimination in South Asia, particularly in the world’s largest functioning democracy, India. In India, she said, it was estimated that over 165 million people continued to be victims of discrimination, exploitation and violence simply because of their castes, a phenomenon referred to as hidden apartheid. Even in Pakistan, she said, the prevalent idea of one “biradari” or group being superior or inferior to another was responsible for the travails of many.
In her introductory paper, Dr Uzma Shujaat, the director of the Area Study Centre for Europe, lamented that there was a yawning gap between profession and practice when it came to human rights. She said redressing the situation called for a more active interaction between Saarc and the European Union. Since all Saarc countries are signatories to the UN human rights charter, the ideological commitment is already there. The need is for exploring how closer cooperation between the EU and Saarc can improve the practice and implication of human rights.
Dr Shujaat traced the metamorphosis of the human rights at the global level, starting with the declaration of the UN Charter of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. This, she said, stemmed from the devastation wrought by World War II, which made the victors and the vanquished alike – that the survival of the human race among other things depended to a large extent on avoiding selective notions of the rights of humans as human beings.
As a global attempt to guard against human rights violations, she mentioned the 1975 Helsinki Accord signed by 35 nations engendering respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. She also mentioned the Maastricht, Lisbon, Amsterdam, and Nice Treaties which consolidated the continent’s commitment to human rights.
IA Rehman, noted journalist and director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in his paper titled “Relationship between rights and responsibilities: role of the civil society”, spoke about balancing rights and responsibilities.He noted that the Soviet Constitution of 1936 devoted four articles to citizens’ duties. These pertained to abiding by the Constitution and the law, maintaining labour discipline, honesty in performing public duties, and respecting the rules of socialist intercourse.
The second article, he said, defined the duty to fortify public (socialist) property, and under the remaining two articles, Soviet citizens had a duty to render military service and defend the country. The Chinese Constitution of 1954, he said, incorporated the same four duties.
The role of the civil society, he said, was the promotion of rights and securing of guarantees that duties imposed on citizens did not detract from their rights. This role, he said, depended on the level of respect for human rights a society had attained.
Rehman lamented that all South Asian countries had ratified the human rights conventions fell far short of implementing them. In this regard, he said, migrants and minorities were most vulnerable. In Pakistan, he said, there was no provision for allowing boys and girls to marry of their own choice after reaching the age of consent. Besides, there was no recognition of the right to change of faith.
Dr Usman Azhar, an assistant professor at the University of Information Technology, Quetta, highlighted the right of children to be protected against economic exploitation. “They must be protected against any work likely to be hazardous to their health, interfere with their education or is detrimental to their physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development,” he said.
Presenting some alarming figures, he said, he said: “There are 215 million children victim to child labour globally and 115 million of them are employed in hazardous trades.”
The trades these children are employed in include agriculture, carpet weaving, automobile workshops, mining, stone/marble cutting, deep-sea fishing, glass factories, hotels and textiles. Citing figures, he said that in 1996 there were reportedly 3.3 million child labourers in Pakistan – a figure that had risen to 10 million in 2005.
Dr Reza Kazimi, a visiting professor at the Area Study Centre for Europe, talking about the reforms the British introduced after assuming control of India, said these were human rights reforms. These related to the abolition of Sati, legalising widow marriages, and fixing of the age of consent for child marriages. “The main plank of the reformist argument was the invocation of universal moral values,” he said.
He gave a detailed account of the practice and where it countered opposition and how certain Hindu quarters like the Pundits resisted because with the woman gone, they had a chance to lay hands on her property and jewels. He also gave a detailed account of the clamping on Thugs and Pindaris by the British as they thought that human rights could not be implemented in an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.
Former ambassador Najmuddin Sheikh, who presided over the proceedings, said if a state failed to afford security to its people, then it became incumbent on the international community to act. He said a special responsibility rested on Pakistan’s shoulders in light of the grant of GSP concessions to Pakistan. The labour conditions in the country would have to be closely watched, he added.
Talking about human rights violations, Sheikh touched upon the matter of young girls in Sindh being married off to the Holy Quran. “The practice is absolutely repugnant to the spirit of the Holy Quran and carries purely economic undertones, namely to keep the property within the family”.
The seminar was held under the joint aegis of the Area Study Centre for Europe and the Hans-Siedell Foundation, Islamabad.