UK human rights report may overshadow Gilani’s visit
Murtaza Ali Shah
LONDON: Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office drew a bleak picture of Pakistan’s human rights record on Monday and continued to bracket Pakistan amongst the countries of “serious concerns” along with Afghanistan, China, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Foreign Secretary William Hague released the 2011 Human Rights and Democracy report on Monday, only a week before the arrival of Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for an official visit of the UK.
The contents of the report threaten to overshadow the visit will definitely cause a lot of unease in Pakistan’s diplomatic and political circles. The report heaped embarrassment on the civilian government of Pakistan People’s Party while declaring: “Concerns persist about the primacy of parliament within the Pakistani system, especially the extent of civilian government control over the military and intelligence services, and the threat of the government being undermined through extra-constitutional means.”
The report noted that human rights in Pakistan, a key ‘war on terror’ ally, including the rule of law; investigation of allegations of torture; freedom of religion or belief; the death penalty; women’s rights; children’s rights; extra-judicial killings; access to water, health care and education; and free and fair elections are major concerns and there has not been much improvement in these areas.
The report said Pakistan remained “near the bottom on a range of crucial indicators” and based its findings on the reporting by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and other groups. Like previous year, the report failed to highlight the human rights violations in economically power countries such as India. It didn’t make any mention of the continuing rights violations of Kashmiris and other religious minorities and castes in India.
With federal and provincial elections due by May 2013, important questions remain about Pakistan’s ability to run free, fair and credible elections, it said. In some areas, the repeat said, there has been some improvement. “The engagement of the Supreme Court on human rights issues has meant that a number of high-profile cases of human rights violations have been addressed through the legal system.”
The report highlighted that in 2011 prime minister, foreign secretary, home secretary, international development secretary, FCO minister for South Asia and Baroness Warsi visited Pakistan to, the UK “to help Pakistan consolidate its progress towards a more stable and inclusive democracy” and engaged with senior figures in Pakistan on a range of human rights issues.
“Human rights will remain a priority for the UK’s engagement with Pakistan, and we will continue to intervene on human rights issues in Pakistan where we believe we can make a positive difference,” declared the report.
The report mentioned the development of Pakistan’s media environment, noting the proliferation of the number and range of media outlets since 2008.
“The increased media penetration into most aspects of Pakistani life has created challenges as well as opportunities, as both the journalistic community and politicians and officials build their understanding of effective freedom of expression and responsible reporting.”
But, the report highlighted the description of Pakistan “as one of the ten most deadly places to be a journalist.” It also noted the killing of journalist Shahzad Saleem last year in Islamabad said, “His death could be linked to articles he had written relating to a militant attack on a Pakistan naval base in Karachi” — pointing fingers at the intelligence agencies of Pakistan.
The report expressed criticism of the cable operators’ decision last year to stop broadcasting BBC World in Pakistan following a documentary series critical of Pakistan’s role in the fight against terrorism and the blocking of access to the online news site Baloch Hal by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
The report said that during 2011, there were continued reports of allegations of extra-judicial killings and other ill treatment and torture by state agencies, particularly in Balochistan. “We continue to emphasise to the Pakistani authorities the importance of ensuring compliance with international human rights instruments, and the need to investigate thoroughly any accusations of extra-judicial killings or torture.”
The report added: “In our engagement with the government of Pakistan we regularly raise with senior military and political figures the vital need to maintain human rights and the rule of law in fighting terrorism.”
The report said that the murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti — both assassinated in Islamabad in 2011 — by religious fanatics reflected that “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are frequently abused by individuals as a means of carrying out personal vendettas through making unfounded accusations against other members of their communities. These accusations are most often levelled at Muslims by other Muslims, but are also regularly used to target religious minorities.”
“While swiftly condemned by all mainstream political parties in Pakistan, his killer was feted by many for his religious conviction, and benefited from several high-profile supporters during his subsequent trial. While the UK opposes the death sentence handed down in the case, we welcome the conviction,” it said.
On the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, the report said that there remains “considerable concerns regarding the integrity of the case against her, the fairness of her trial, and her safety and treatment in prison.”
The report said that British representatives have regularly held meetings with “representatives from the Christian, Ahmadi and Hazara communities to hear of the persecution that they face, and has had regular engagement with the Ministry of Human Rights and civil society groups engaged in promoting religious tolerance and dialogue, many of whom have received death threats.”
The report described the situation faced by women in Pakistan as acute, “as is shown by Pakistan’s position of 133 out of 135 on the Global Gender Gap Index.” “Pakistan was labelled the third most dangerous place in the world for women by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011, owing to the prevalence of domestic violence, so-called “honour” killings, forced marriages, rape and physical and sexual abuse. Half of Pakistan’s children are out of school and at least 60% of these are girls.”
The report highlighted the worsening human rights situation for religious minorities, especially against the Hindu and Hazara populations.
“In particular, we are concerned about targeted attacks on the Hazara population in Balochistan in the second half of 2011 and the Ahmadi community in Pakistan. We will continue to press the government of Pakistan to uphold the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of their faith, ethnicity or belief.”
A foreign office spokesperson told The News it was not true that Britain didn’t want to upset strong countries. “The countries included as a ‘country of concern’ are amongst those where we have the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns. It is not an exhaustive list.”