The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has done an excellent job of compiling data on human rights abuses in the country. For over 30 years she has been publishing her annual reports detailing her observations on human rights and related issues in Pakistan.
The HRCP published its latest annual report “State of Human Rights in 2021” on April 29 in Islamabad. It is in memory of the former Chair of the HRCP, Dr. Dedicated to Mehdi Hasan (1937-2022). In 2021, the HRCP lost four of its dynamic leaders: IA Rehman, Kamran Arif, Sindhu Mukesh and Zaman Khan. They were the torchbearers of democracy and fundamental rights in Pakistan, devoting more of their lives to defending human rights in the country. Their work extended to other countries in the region, promoting peace and harmony.
The HRCP is an independent human rights organization and most of its activists and council members are volunteers. She has earned the respect of national and international bodies and civil society organizations for her exceptional work. Currently, under the leadership of individuals such as Chair Hina Jilani, Co-Chair Asa Iqbal Butt, Treasurer Hussain Naqi, Secretary General Harris Khalique and Director Farah Zia, the HRCP is conducting various fact-finding missions on specific issues. These missions conduct an in-depth analysis of a specific problem and then make their findings available to the public.
One of the major concerns highlighted by the report relates to freedom of expression in Pakistan. Because the previous PTI government was one of the most repressive in terms of intimidating journalists, the report lists at least nine instances where journalists were intimidated or silenced. It was the most pressing topic of the year. When a government fails to protect freedom of expression – rather tries to restrict it – it has a direct impact on all other rights. Without freedom of expression, people are unaware of the kind of persecution and oppression that prevails in society.
In 2021, the PTI government also restricted freedom of assembly and association, and whenever journalists and media professionals attempted to inform their audiences and readership of such violations, the government launched a crackdown. Similarly, the PTI government has compromised parliamentary supremacy by flouting democratic norms and constitutional provisions. Then there were numerous cases of enforced disappearances and ongoing police excesses directed against dissenting voices. Dissenters remained anathema to the government as it intensified its attacks on those who in any way challenged it. The same happened with marginalized sections of society who remained on the receiving end.
In a country like Pakistan, marginalized people find an outlet in the free media for their grievances to be heard and projected more widely. But the Pakistani government continued its censorship in 2021 using both explicit and implicit tactics. That is one of the reasons why the overarching theme of the HRCP report is freedom of expression and why it presented the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) with the Nisar Osmani Prize for Courage in Journalism. The report covers a wide range of human rights violations and includes separate chapters on all administrative and federal units of Pakistan, including the four provinces of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.
There were also some positive developments, such as the appointment of new chairs to the National Commission on Human Rights and the National Commission on the Status of Women after a hiatus of several years. The main challenge highlighted in the HRCP report is that these commissions must operate at full capacity and with the necessary financial autonomy. Many of these commissions remain ineffective on these two points; First, not all staff positions are filled; and secondly, they lack the necessary financial means. These two factors hamper their operation and cause them to be idle or underperforming.
Interestingly, while some good and progressive legislation has been enacted at the federal capital and provincial levels, at the national level the government has leveled out most of the legislation – particularly the regressive ones – by thorough presidential ordinances. Attempts have been made to thwart domestic violence and forced conversion laws. The Islamic Ideology Council was one such institution that failed to play a progressive role in society. The government also glossed over violent protests staged by various religious groups, disrupting public life in many cities and towns. There was visible government approval of these conservative groups who managed to get their desired government deals.
In their regression, the Punjab Assembly led the pack with numerous resolutions urging conservative legislation. In addition to Punjab, other provincial governments have repeatedly attempted to keep local bodies in limbo. After lengthy legal haggling, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government managed to hold the first phase of local elections in the last month of the year.
The conservative attack led by PTI also targeted the country’s education system. Contrary to its campaign promise to introduce a uniform education system with the same educational facilities and opportunities for all students and schools, the government opted for a highly controversial Single National Curriculum (SNC). In this federal government-led country slide, the Sindh government opposed and did not accept the SNC.
The HRCP report also highlights a rise in allegations of blasphemy and violence against women. In 2021, Pakistan and the world were shocked to witness the horrific lynching of a Sri Lankan national in Sialkot – once again, allegations of blasphemy made international headlines. Domestic violence was widespread, and women were subjected to harassment, honor crimes, rape and torture. Violence against children and transgender communities also increased.
The government’s conservative agenda received a boost from the Taliban, who took Kabul in August 2021 and established their theocratic rule in Afghanistan. Millions of Afghan citizens have been displaced.
In Pakistan, the case of Idrees Khattak became a grim reminder of how both governments and state institutions can use legislation against human rights defenders. Arming such laws can have dire consequences for activists who risk life and security to defend human rights in Pakistan. Amid all these human rights abuses, it is imperative that the country enjoy unrestricted freedom of expression so that crimes come to light and egregious attempts to silence dissenting voices are exposed. Perhaps the PTI government’s worst attempt was to enforce the draconian but cleverly named Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) regulation, and then there was the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), both of which target freedom of expression in the aimed at society.
While the government sought to widen the scope of restrictions on freedom of expression, non-state actors also asserted their whims. The threat from non-state actors is increasing in Pakistan, as most of them use violent methods to silence people of different beliefs or opinions. One such example was the assassination of Nazim Jokhio, who was a human rights defender but fell victim to some influential lords in his area when he exposed their criminal activities. In short, the HRCP report 2021 is an important document that is available online. We need more civil society organizations in Pakistan that can control government excesses and become the voice of the people.
The author received his PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: