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Spotlight on Pakistan amid re-election to UN rights body

While rights groups welcome the move, not everyone is happy about the decision

UCA News reporter, Islamabad

UCA News reporter, Islamabad

Updated: October 15, 2020 07:10 AM GMT
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Spotlight on Pakistan amid re-election to UN rights body

Sufi devotees perform at the Data Darbar Shrine during the three-day annual Urs religious festival in Lahore on Oct. 6. Sufis have been persecuted in Pakistan for following their form of Islamic mysticism. (Photo: AFP)

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Pakistan’s re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) has put the country’s commitment to promoting and protecting human rights under the spotlight for the next three years.

Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) and Group Development Pakistan (GDP) congratulated Pakistan for winning a seat with an overwhelming majority on Oct. 14, securing 163 votes in the 193-member UN General Assembly.

Pakistan has served on the HRC since Jan. 1, 2018. With its re-election, Pakistan will continue as a member for another three-year term commencing Jan. 1, 2021. Since the HRC’s establishment in 2006, this is the fifth time Pakistan has been elected to the UN’s premier rights body.

“This is an opportunity for the country to reflect on its human rights record, protect the rights of women, children, religious minorities, and other vulnerable and excluded groups, and to introduce much-needed policy and legal reforms in line with international treaty obligations,” the country’s leading rights groups said.

“In particular, we welcome the government’s pledge to arrange visits of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations special rapporteurs to Pakistan, and look forward to the special rapporteurs’ outstanding visit requests being granted by the government. Requests for visits from a number of special rapporteurs remain pending since as far back as 2000.

“Moreover, the government has stated in its pledge that the torture, custodial death and custodial rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill 2018 has reached the National Assembly/Senate. While promises about a bill to criminalize torture have been reiterated since 2016, we hope the law is passed before the end of this year. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari both reaffirmed their commitment to protect citizens from torture in September and June this year respectively.”

Pakistan passed the Juvenile Justice System Act that safeguards the rights of children in 2018 and “we hope the rules will soon be drafted for its effective implementation. Several juveniles remain on death row as their cases continue to pend. The precedent set by the Lahore High Court in February this year by commuting the sentence of Muhammad Iqbal should motivate the government to grant relief to other juvenile offenders on death row,” the groups added.

They noted the government had also made notable advancements with regard to relief for persons with disabilities.

However, they noted numerous mentally ill prisoners continue to languish on death row because of inadequate legal safeguards, including lack of implementation of the Mental Health Ordinance 2001 and ineffective protection of offenders with psychosocial disabilities.

Pakistan claimed in its pledge to have taken several steps to mitigate the health, social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We hope this will also lead to greater transparency in sharing of data pertaining to coronavirus cases in prisons, particularly in relation to the number of prisoners tested, number of positive cases, and steps taken by the authorities for their treatment.”

The government has established an autonomous National Commission for Human Rights, but the fate of the commission remains in limbo as new commissioners have not been appointed despite the tenure of the previous ones having expired in June 2019.

“Pakistan’s re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council is a great achievement. We must now use the platform to not only voice human rights abuses in Kashmir and the rest of the world but also to rectify violations within our own borders,” said Sarah Belal, executive director of Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit organization which fights for the rights of prisoners.

“We also call on the government to sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and look forward to the integration of all international treaties to which Pakistan is a signatory into the domestic legal framework.”

Harris Khalique, secretary general of HRCP, welcomed Pakistan's re-election. "It is imperative for Pakistan to work closely with the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and to demonstrate its commitment to human rights by protecting the right to freedom of expression and assembly, both of which have been constricted,” Khalique said.

Nighat Dad, executive director of DRF, said the group was encouraged by the pledge to preserve, promote and strengthen freedoms of the press, communication, assembly, expression or opinion, religion or belief, consistent with Pakistan's national and international obligations at a time when the right to freedom of expression in the country is at a crucial juncture.

"Media and online freedoms are under pressure from laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act that have eroded online freedoms and has led to judicial harassment of activists, journalists and women," said Dad.

Valerie Khan, executive director of GDP, said: “Pakistan’s re-election to the esteemed United Nations Human Rights Council makes us proud and shows that some of the country’s recent efforts in the realm of child rights have not gone unnoticed. We must now upscale our work to improve child justice in alignment with the General Comment 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally, we must enforce child protection laws which will help strengthen Pakistan’s voice in international human rights fora.”

However, Gulalai Ismail, an exiled rights activist, slammed Pakistan’s re-election to the UN rights body. “The state of human rights in Pakistan calls for the election of Pakistan into the ‘Human Rights Abuse Council’ of the ‘United Military Regimes’,” she tweeted.

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