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Foreign minister paints rosy picture of human rights in Pakistan
Publication Date : 31-10-2012
While unveiling Pakistan’s national report at the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) yesterday, the government glossed over bitter facts and painted an overly rosy picture of what cannot be considered an enviable record.
Keen to defend the country’s record because of candidacy for the November 12 election to HRC and hopes of qualifying for next GSP+ preferential trade programme, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar herself led the delegation to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva.
UPR is a state-driven process in which every UN member country gets a chance to make a presentation at the council about steps it had taken to address rights violations and fulfil its obligations. Currently the second round of the review, which started in May this year, is under way. The UPR has been heralded as an unmatched international mechanism to monitor rights situation across the world.
Khar based the country’s HR case on a legislation enacted for protection of rights including establishment of National Commission for Human Rights; constitutional reforms; ratification of international HR treaties; visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a number of "special procedures" – Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers and Working Group on Enforced Disappearances.
The delegation did take pride in having a vibrant civil society and media and strengthening democracy in the country.
But what the foreign minister either fleetingly addressed or completely ignored – missing persons; blasphemy laws; continued killing of Shias; plight of religious minorities; maltreatment of women; abuses during counter-militancy operations by the military and situation in Balochistan.
The foreign minister spoke about growing extremism and terrorism in the country as a major challenge to national security, attributed it to CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviet Union, but didn’t have an inspiring story about how the government was addressing the critical issue other than military-run "Sabaoon Project" in Swat.
National outpouring of sympathy for child educaiton activist Malala Yousufzai was showcased by the minister as a reflection of the national resolve against terrorism, little remembering that the country even then failed to develop national consensus on taking on the militants.
Khar’s description of the situation gave an impression that the terrorists had an upper hand in the fight against terrorism in which 40,000 innocent Pakistani lives have been lost, while the loss to economy has been valued at US$70 billion.
“Extremists have targeted hospitals, schools, shrines, mosques, and other places of worship. This has created an environment of intimidation for law-enforcement officials, members of judiciary, members of the media and civil society activists,” the foreign minister noted.
However, she used the occasion to reiterate Pakistan’s opposition to US drone attacks in tribal areas as violation of national sovereignty.
The statement contained a solid defence of the military that has been accused of having committed abuses during counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations.
“Our counter-terrorism response is in compliance with our obligations under international law. Despite this extremely challenging environment, Pakistani law-enforcement agencies have acted with restraint. They maintain high standards of professional conduct and uphold human rights in dealing with militants. Counter-terrorism operations are conducted on specific intelligence with all precautions to avoid civilian causalities. Any complaints against law-enforcement officials are taken seriously by their respective departments, by the parliament and by the courts.”
While speaking about religious minorities, the foreign minister described them as “an integral part of Pakistani society”. She mentioned the measures taken for their representation in assemblies and the job quota fixed for them.
But there was no commitment or indication about amendment or abolition of the blasphemy laws that have been widely misused not only against religious minorities, but also against Muslims. There wasn’t anything about enforcing the checks existing in the blasphemy laws.
The government has not only failed to protect the threatened groups but has also been failing to amend the law because of the fear of extremists.
Khar flaunted half a dozen laws enacted by the government for protection of women’s rights. She, however, did not say what was being done to ensure the implementation of those laws.
Freedom of expression
Ignoring the fact that Pakistan was one of the deadliest countries for journalists, the foreign minister’s emphasis was on how the media was thriving and social media emerged as a “powerful and influential medium”.
The issue of enforced disappearances came up in Khar’s speech in the context of the visit of the UN Working Group on Enforced/Involuntary Disappearances and was not discussed beyond that. Pakistanis have been very touchy about the issue and the visit of the working group was not only criticised by many political leaders, but several functionaries also refused to meet them.
Hundreds of sectarian killings, mostly belonging to the Shia community, did not merit a mention.
Reuters adds: Pakistan, plagued by Islamists militancy, sectarian violence and frequent disasters that push its people deeper into poverty, told the United Nations it is a democratic and progressive state working to protect human rights.
But Western countries and the normally anti-Western Belarus countered that in Pakistan religious minorities were persecuted, that dissent was often brutally suppressed by the army, and that little was done to tackle human trafficking.
Foreign Minister Khar said that Pakistan “is a democratic, pluralistic and progressive state” aiming to create a fair society based on equality, respect for diversity and justice.
“Today Pakistan is a functional democracy with an elected and sovereign parliament, an independent judiciary, a free media and a vibrant and robust civil society,” she declared.
Some Western countries have already indicated they do not see Pakistan as a suitable candidate – although they accept there is little they can do to head off a clear majority vote for it in the UN General Assembly on Nov 12.
“We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Pakistan,” US ambassador Eileen Donahoe told the council, referring to army operations “aimed at silencing dissent” in the rebellious province of Balochistan.
She said Pakistan should ensure that those guilty of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings must be prosecuted, while laws often used to justify discrimination against religious minorities should be reformed.
A British delegate told the council that the recent case of a young Christian girl accused by an imam of burning pages of the Quran showed the danger of the blasphemy law for ordinary Pakistanis, including Muslims outside the Sunni majority.
“Credible elections in Pakistan will require that the rights of women are protected and political participation is ensured,” said the delegate, Phil Tissot. Minorities should also be allowed to vote freely, he added.
The US and British strictures were echoed by Sweden, Switzerland and a range of other European countries. And Belarus, which normally lines up with developing countries in UN bodies, took an even tougher line.
Forced labour was widespread in Pakistan, and punishment beatings of children were legal, said the delegate from the former Soviet state – which is itself widely accused by its European neighbours of serious human rights abuses.
Pakistan should also intensify efforts to fight trafficking of women and children, and to stop sexual exploitation and cruel treatment of children, the Belarus delegate declared.