View from the courtroom: UN working group set to review country’s progress on human rights

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is set to consider on Monday (today) the National Report of Pakistan sharing progress made in the field of human rights from 2012 to 2017. This is the third UPR Report of Pakistan to be considered by the Working Group. The earlier two reports were reviewed in May 2008 and Oct 2012, respectively.

While through this report the Government of Pakistan has tried to portray the overall human rights situation in the country, it has failed to address some of the recommendations of the previous review about which it had extended its support on some of the issues especially that of “Enforced and involuntary disappearances,” impunity to perpetrators of violence against human rights defenders and mediapersons, domestic violence, child marriages, rights of religious minorities, bonded labour, etc.

The advance questions put forward by different member states of the Working Group also focuses on different issues specially the issue of “Enforced disappearances”, death penalty, customary practices, including honour killing, misuse of blasphemy law, right to free and compulsory primary education, prevention of torture, etc.

In the previous UPR Report, there were several recommendations by the members related to “enforced disappearances”. Recommendation No 20 states: “Specifically criminalize enforced disappearances in the penal code and reinforce the capacities of the Pakistan Inquiry Commission on Enforced Disappearances in order that the commission can fully carry out its mission.”

Recommendation No 111 provided: “Reinforce its efforts to fight impunity regarding cases of enforced disappearance by bringing all responsible persons to justice.” The recommendation No 114 provided: “Take effective measures against enforced disappearances by strengthening the Commission of Inquiry and expanding their mandate to all security agencies. Vest the National Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) greater authority and resources to conduct investigation.”

The Government of Pakistan had submitted its response to the recommendations made in the UPR Report 2012 in March 2013, and had spelled out its commitment to most of those recommendations, and also expressed its inability to support some of the recommendations.

While the government had extended support to the recommendations related to “enforced disappearances” it had also stated that the government had been implementing another relevant recommendation which states: “Ensure investigation and prosecution of those responsible for abduction and enforced disappearances and encourage the Supreme Court to continue investigation on this problem.”

While the superior courts and COIED continue to hear cases of “missing persons”, the government has yet to incorporate provisions in Pakistan Penal Code related to this phenomenon. There are provisions in the law related to wrongful confinement, but no specific provision has been incorporated to deal with “enforced disappearances.” Similarly, as far as prosecution of elements involved in such offences is concerned, it has still been a far cry.

Over this issue, in its National Report the government has mostly mentioned the performance of COIED as the steps it has taken to implement the said recommendations. “In order to take effective measures to deal with the issue of enforced disappearances, in April 2010, the federal government set up the COIED. The Commission also has powers to order production of a person in respect of whom it is suspected by the Commission to be held in illegal detention of some Law Enforcement/Intelligence Agency,“ the report states.

The report provides that the Commission has been able to dispose of 2,416 cases from March 2011 to November30, 2016, of which 1,798 persons have been traced as either returned home or confined in jails/Internment/Rehabilitation Centres on criminal/terrorism charges and the remaining 618 cases were closed either due to non-prosecution or after thorough investigation found these not being cases of enforced disappearances.

Recommendation No 21 states: “Enact a provincial legislation on domestic violence as well as an increased number of support structures for women on the provincial level.”

While the other three provinces have enacted law dealing with domestic violence, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has yet to enact the relevant law. For the last many years different bodies, including KP Provincial Commission on Status of Women, have been working on draft of a Bill, but so far it could not be tabled in the provincial assembly.

Another recommendation relates to forced and child marriages, which states: “Take effective measures to prevent forced or early marriage, in particular with a view to ending rape, sexual exploitation and forced conversions of scheduled caste girls.”

While the colonial-era Child Marriages Restraint Act, 1929, remained in vogue in the country, controversy continues to persists regarding several of its provisions especially about what should be minimum permissible age for a female child to marry. The existing law mentions the prohibitory age as 16 years for a female child and 18 years for a male child.

About the rights of journalists, Recommendation No 118 provides: “Bring to justice perpetrators of attacks on journalists by effectively investigating all individuals and organizations accused of such abuses.” Similarly, Recommendation No 119 states: “Introduce strong legislation prohibiting attacks against journalists to effectively investigate such acts and prosecute the perpetrators.

Despite the commitment made by the government, cases of violence against mediapersons continued during last couple of years. Recently, a journalist Ahmad Noorani was attacked by unidentified persons and was severely tortured. Similarly, three journalists named Shahnawaz Khan Tarkzai from Mohmand Agency, Islam Gul Afridi from Khyber Agency and a freelancer Junaid Ibrahim, were picked up separately by unidentified persons in October. The former two were set free after an overnight captivity, whereas the third one was set free after three days.

The situation of human rights defenders also remained gloomy during last five years. One of the prominent cases was that of a female freelance journalist and human rights defender, Ms Zeenat Shehzadi, who was pursing case of an Indian national Hamid Nehal Ansari. She was kidnapped in Lahore in Aug 2015 and was set free by her captives after over two years of captivity in Oct 2017. So far no details are available as to who had kidnapped her and where she had been kept.

Advocate Malik Jarar, an office-bearer of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was killed in Feb 2013. Lawyer and member of HRCP, Rashid Rehman was killed in May 2014 in Multan. He was receiving threats as he was defending an accused in a blasphemy case.