Pakistan watchdog says country failing on human rights

ISLAMABAD (AP) – An independent Pakistani watchdog criticised the country’s human rights record over the past year in a new report released yesterday, saying the nation has failed to make progress on a myriad of issues, ranging from forced disappearances, to women’s rights and protection of religious minorities.

The damning report card issued by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said people continue to disappear in Pakistan, sometimes because they criticise the country’s powerful military or because they advocate better relations with neighbouring India.

The controversial blasphemy law continues to be misused, especially against dissidents, with cases in which mere accusations that someone committed blasphemy lead to deadly mob violence, it said.

While deaths directly linked to acts of terrorism declined in 2017, the report said attacks against the country’s minorities were on the rise.

The 296-page report was dedicated to one of the commission’s founders, Asma Jahangir, whose death in February generated worldwide outpouring of grief and accolades for the 66-year-old activist who was fierce in her commitment to human rights.

IA Rehman (left), an official from the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, displays a copy of the State of Human Rights report 2017 with Afrasiab Khattak in Islamabad, Pakistan yesterday. – AP

“We have lost a human rights giant,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said following Jahangir’s death. “She was a tireless advocate for inalienable rights of all people and for equality – whether in her capacity as a Pakistani lawyer in the domestic justice system, as a global civil society activist, or as a Special Rapporteur… Asma will not be forgotten.”

Yesterday’s report also took aim at religious bigotry in Pakistan and the government’s refusal to push back against religious zealots, fearing a backlash.

“Freedom of expression and freedom of association is under attack, except for those who carry the religious banner,” commission spokesman IA Rehman said at the release of the report, which accused Pakistani authorities of ignoring “intolerance and extremism”.

Religious conservative organisations continue to resist laws aimed at curbing violence against women, laws giving greater rights to women and removing legal restrictions on social exchanges between sexes, which remain segregated in many parts of Pakistani society, it said. Still, there was legal progress in other areas, it noted, describing as a “landmark development” a new law in the country’s largest province, Punjab, which accepts marriage licences within the Sikh community at the local level, giving the unions protection under the law.

But religious minorities in Pakistan continued to be a target of extremists, it said.

“In a year when freedom of thought, conscience and religion continued to be stifled, incitement to hatred and bigotry increased, and tolerance receded even further,” said the report.

Last year, a government-mandated commission on enforced disappearances received 868 new cases, more than in two previous years, the report said.

The commission located 555 of the disappeared but the remaining 313 are still missing.

“Journalists and bloggers continue to sustain threats, attacks and abductions and blasphemy law serves to coerce people into silence,” the report said.