Irshad Soomro, Pakistan,
APMA 2019

Civil society movements have played a significant role in the struggle towards defending human rights values and restoring democracy in Pakistan. Most importantly, the trends and characteristics of human rights struggles by civil society groups have changed in relation to political circumstances. For example, during the period of Dictators Gen. Zia and Gen. Musharraf, civil society human rights struggle were used against the violations and abuses by the state under the military coup d’état. However, immediately after the incident of 9/11, Pakistan’s engagement in the war on terror had further aggravated the human rights situation as violations were committed by both state & non-state actors.

After the 9/11 incident, Pakistan’s civil society human rights organizations and activists came forward with strong opinions on the state’s compliance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) conventions and treaties, and strong sentiments against state and non-state human rights violations of militants’ attacks, enforced disappearances, spread of religious fundamentalism, attacks on minorities, sectarian violence, abuse of blasphemy law, women rights and human rights defenders, as well as target killings of human rights activists. However, human rights defenders (HRDs) and organizations who protest are subject to threats as a consequence of their work, and regularly experience open dissent with state and non-state actors.

The humiliation experienced by civil society HRDs are not only meant to punish the protesters and silence the vocal HRDs but also intimidate and deter others from engaging in human rights advocacy in Pakistan. The perpetrators use a range of methods to achieve this. Enforced disappearances are one of the common methods practiced by the state, and thousands of HRDs have been picked up or taken into custody by law enforcement agencies in the manner which is contrary to the provision of the law. Saeed Baloch (Secretary General of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum) and Maher Abdul Sattar (Head of a social movement Anjuman e Muzareen Punjab) were also abducted by paramilitary forces and charged under anti-terror law just because of defending the rights of fishermen and peasants in Pakistan.

Besides this, several renowned human rights civil society activists have been brutally killed on account of advocating human rights in Pakistan. Several human rights issues have been banned from public discussion. For instance, advocating for the Baloch peoples is considered to be under an undeclared ban by the government of Pakistan. Sabeen Mehmood, a brave woman activist and founder of The Second Floor (T2F), a forum to host a public discussion, was assassinated in Karachi just after a few hours of her talk on the Balochistan conflict. Also, the Pakistan blasphemy law is one of the policies that is widely used for the persecutions of minority groups. To protect or advocate for those who have been accused under this law also results in receiving threats  from state and non-state actors. Rashid Rehman, a lawyer and head of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was killed because of defending an accused person of blasphemy of law.

Pakistan strongly expresses its opposition to providing legal protection of human rights defenders internationally and nationally. In the international sphere, Pakistan regularly votes against UN resolutions that provide better protection for HRDs. In national laws, Pakistan recently enacted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, also known commonly as cybercrime law, to hamper digital freedom of expression and provide the state overreaching powers. Pakistan also devised a ‘Policy for Regulation of International NGOs in Pakistan’ that severely limits the activities of human rights defenders working through non-governmental organizations. Moreover, the decision by the government to disallow the functioning of several organizations is understood as an attempt to control their actions and abilities to access resources for the promotion of socio-economic and political rights of society. Dismantling human rights civic spaces and crackdowns through new laws and policies over freedom of association have been widely used to control human rights civil society organizations and defenders.

All in all, due to the lack of government accountability, a culture of impunity is upheld among the perpetrators. Authorities seldom sanction government officials for human rights abuses, regardless of how severe. Arguably, these policies and regulations not only limit the capacities of civil society organizations but also pose challenges and threats to life, security, and wellbeing of human rights defenders. Due to state policies and stringent illegitimate attacks on civil society human rights defenders, the situation of human rights in Pakistan needs further focus and emphasis in international political and academic discussion.  Perhaps, there should be an inquiry, debate and/or dialogue on the question to what extent the state has ensured its constitutional responsibility of protecting human rights defenders from harm as a consequence of their work.

Photo from The Dawn.

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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