Human rights and Pakistan

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT was announced last week that two UN international treaties that Pakistan signed recently have been ratified. They are the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984.

It is important to spell out the nomenclatures of these instruments in full to indicate clearly the obligations that Islamabad will undertake after the ratifications are deposited with the UN secretary general.

Given the appalling state of human rights in Pakistan and the fact that these instruments were opened for signature decades ago, one does wonder what prompted Islamabad to enter into these international accords, especially when its human rights record is not on the way to being mended.

For greater perspective one has to revisit the events of 2006. That year the UN Commission for Human Rights was replaced by the UN Human Rights Council for which Pakistan had presented its candidature for election. At that time a defensive Musharraf government had promised to sign and ratify all core human rights treaties as early as possible.

Many will hail the signing and ratification of these treaties as a feather in the cap of the PPP government which, since it entered office in February 2008, has signed and ratified a number of international treaties.

Apart from the two important documents mentioned above, five others have received ratification that bind the government on various issues ranging from honouring the economic, social and cultural rights of citizens, to cooperating on the criminalisation of the participation of its citizens in international criminal groups and taking prescribed measures against organic pollution of the environment.

But these measures do not amount to much in terms of upholding the rights recognised by the core human rights instruments of the UN. There are nine of them with eight protocols. Pakistan has not signed any of the optional protocols which in most cases empower international monitoring bodies to take action against a defaulting state.

There are some core instruments that Pakistan has not even signed, while others have been signed but not ratified. In the first category are the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 1990, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 2006.

Pakistan`s record is appalling on both these scores and it is not surprising that it has kept itself aloof from the two conventions which could invite international opprobrium for Islamabad for non-observance of its responsibilities. The treaty that has been signed but not ratified so far is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006.

Admittedly, signing and ratifying some conventions is a commendable measure on the part of the government when its predecessors had shied away from it. But one hopes it is understood in official quarters that when a government undertakes commitments under international law, it is expected to enforce them by modifying its domestic laws accordingly.

The government has tried to safeguard its position against external pressures by adding a reservation that its commitments will be subjected to Islamic laws and ideology, the internationally recognised commitments on self-determination and the constitution of Pakistan. Previously provisos of this nature provided the government a pretext to escape some basic responsibilities. Take the case of the two conventions ratified last week.

The civil and political rights` covenant states, “Each state party to the present covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” and it is required to “ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth”.

After signing this covenant can Pakistan really justify the treatment it has meted out to the Ahmadis and its handling of the minorities who live in a perpetual state of insecurity. Does it truly plan to fulfil its obligations?

The covenant sets up a human rights committee to which every party is required to submit within a year of its accession a report on the measures it adopts to give effect to the rights recognised by the covenant and thereafter whenever a report is called for.

The government has discovered that reports such as these are easy to manipulate as it has been managing to do in the case of the Convention on the Elimination of all kinds of Discrimination against Women which also requires similar reports from parties.

Not strangely, Islamabad has not signed — let alone ratified — the optional protocol to this covenant as that could get it into trouble. If it were a signatory then any citizen of Pakistan could have sent a communication to the human rights committee if he felt he was a victim of violations of any of the rights spelt out in this document.

Take the convention against torture. It defines the term `torture` very clearly as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him information or a confession, punishing him for an act he has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him”.

Will the government take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in its territory by checking the police?

The convention provides for the establishment of a committee against torture that will receive reports from state parties and can even investigate reports of systemic practice of torture in a state — albeit in confidentiality. The proceedings may be included in the annual report of the committee but with the agreement of the concerned state. Can Pakistan stand up to this scrutiny?