Commitments must be followed by action said national and international human rights NGOs today in the wake of the second review of Pakistan under the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.
NGO representatives said that they feared that an overoptimistic picture of progress since 2008 had been presented by the government delegation, headed by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar. The glossy depiction was said to belie the great challenges experienced by swathes of citizens in protecting their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
The UPR is a peer mechanism, where states make observations and recommendations on the human rights record of other states. However, NGOs are concerned that the recommendations made this week will be made again in four years time, unless words turn into committed action. More than 80 states spoke during the review in Geneva, and several underscored that their recommendations echoed those they made in 2008.
A key concern of many states was the persistent threat to religious freedoms. Repressive legislation, including the infamous blasphemy laws which are open to abuse remain in place despite recommendations made in 2008 for them to be repealed. More than fifteen states raised serious concerns about the blasphemy laws in this year’s review, many of whom urged their abolition.
“Hina Rabbani Khar said that Pakistan had built protective walls around victims of gross rights violations”, Shobha Das of Minority Rights Group said. “But people from religious minorities are not seeking walls. They are seeking full participation in economic, social and cultural life. And they seek the right to walk down the street without fearing for their lives.”
Scheduled Castes face additional challenges to realising their basic rights to education, work and food. Progress is again far from advanced. Many landless, rural workers from the Scheduled Castes are trapped into bonded labour, despite the fact that it was outlawed for almost two decades. Zulfiqar Shah of Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network said, “Two governments recommended Pakistan to address caste issues, and Ireland called upon the government to implement its own laws to eradicate bonded labour. We are here to call once again for the government to enact an anti-discrimination law and to implement existing legislation that bans forced labour. We don’t want to make the same call four years from now”.
Children are also drawn into bonded labour, one of many concerns raised by states related to children. “Thirteen children working as domestic workers died between January 2010 and December 2011, as a result of severe torture and abuse. We are still waiting for strong laws, strong penalties and strong implementation on child abuse” said Arshad Mahmood of the Child Rights Movement Pakistan.
“Ratification of international treaties must be followed be domestic legislation and proper implementation of the relevant laws. Three child’s rights Bills must be passed both at the federal and provincial levels” said Mr. Mahmood.
During the review, the government noted that Pakistan’s buzzing civil society and journalists were responsible for wider global awareness of events in Pakistan. This, said Hina Rabbani Khar was evidence of an active media, unhampered by undue interference. She noted that since the last review, curbs on the media had been lifted. However, four states made strong calls for Pakistan to immediately implement measures to protect journalists noting that they operate in highly precarious situations.
Dur-e-Shahwar of the Pakistan Press Foundation said that journalists work under constant threat. “Journalists are often targeted by security forces and those perpetrating violent attacks often enjoy impunity. In addition, access to information on the internet is under threat as new filters are being introduced. You cannot celebrate free media in front of diplomats in Geneva and return home to block people’s access to information”.
The NGOs said they were open to cooperating with the government of Pakistan, especially where that would encourage acceptance of a greater number of recommendations from the review. Consultations with affected groups and the creation of a national action plan for the implementation of UPR recommendations would be an ideal starting point for action. “We stand ready to provide our expertise and inputs on next steps. A practical action plan with our full collaboration will enable us to make real progress in the coming four years.” concluded the group.