On November 13, 2017, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) reviewed the human rights situation in Pakistan, in its 28th session in Geneva. The results were as dispiriting as expected.
The UPR allowed Pakistan to declare actions taken to improve the state of human rights in the country, and to address any violations. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, headed this year’s delegation, in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The foreign ministry statement said that an overwhelming majority of states complemented Pakistan’s “substantial progress” in advancing the human rights agenda, since 2012, despite its preoccupation with countering terrorism and its negative fall-out.
A total of 117 countries participated in Pakistan’s UPR, which shows how important the country’s current human rights situation is in the global arena. While acknowledging Pakistan’s recent progress, many participating states voiced valid concerns and posed questions, during the 3.5 hour open discussion. The outcome report of the UPR shows that 289 recommendations were made—up from 167 in Pakistan’s second UPR, in 2012, and 51 in the first UPR, in 2008.
All of the recommendations will be compiled into a report by the Working Group, which Pakistan will adopt. The state must examine the report, either “noting” or “accepting” the recommendations, and respond to the UNHRC by its next session in March 2018.
The UPR28 drew global attention to Pakistan’s human rights failures, with the majority of recommendations focusing on the women’s rights, minority rights, children’s rights and freedom of expression. The international community yet again asked Pakistan to abolish the death penalty and repeal or, at the very least, amend blasphemy laws, in order to uphold its commitments under UN treaties.
The outcome report of the UPR shows that 289 recommendations were made-up from 167 in Pakistan’s second UPR, in 2012, and 51 in the first UPR, in 2008
Blasphemy laws and minority rights were hot topics during the review, with a few delegates, notably India, the US and UK urging Pakistan to abolish laws that persecute minorities, particularly the Christians and Ahmadis. The foreign minister found himself the centre of a political controversy after being pictured with a member of the latter community. He later apologised in an interview, claiming that he was unaware of the man’s faith and, since then, always asks people whether they belong to the community before allowing them to take pictures with him.
Another point of discussion was safeguarding the right to free speech. The UPR28 condemned the persecution of journalists and political and human rights activists by state torture in Pakistan and demanded that the state take actions to tackle the growing problem of “enforced disappearances”. From August to October 2017, the Commission on Inquiry of Enforced Disappearances received nearly 300 cases, which is by far the largest number in a three-month period, in recent years. Switzerland and Germany both raised the issue, to which Pakistan responded that it is the terrorists that attack journalists and human rights defenders, not the state. It was recommended that the state take a more active role in assuring the protection and safety of the victims, and hold the culprits to justice. In regards to freedom of speech, the Cyber Crime Law, which largely censors and restricts the freedom of speech and expression in the country, was not mentioned.
Other notable recommendations, include raising the legal age of marriage to 18, removing military courts, accepting the Working Group’s constant requests to visit Pakistan, and making serious efforts to ensure public and civil liberties for all citizens, especially refugees and the LGBT community.
Pakistan has been reluctant to accept recommendations that are politically charged. After its second UPR, Pakistan accepted 126 out of 167 recommendations, noted 34 and rejected 7. Although this seems reasonable, in their official statement, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) noted that the seven rejected recommendations were related to the most serious human rights violations. These included proposals to repeal blasphemy laws, to abolish the death penalty, and to end the ongoing military operations in Balochistan. Certain recommendations concerning blasphemy laws and the death penalty were also given in Pakistan’s first UPR. Even as the problems continue to worsen, if the state was unwilling to make changes five or ten years ago, it is unlikely that they will change its stance on the divisive issues now. This is especially true when the country is at the cusp of a competitive general election – doing so would be political suicide.
Since the state has been unsuccessful in making full use of the UPR to improve people’s lives, one can understand the Pakistani citizen’s apathetic lack of awareness of or involvement with the process. However, it serves as an important ethical global bonding in the spirit of constructive dialogue, engagement and cooperation. And, in today’s context, with Pakistan’s election into the UNHRC being met with great scepticism, the country is under international pressure to show its commitment to promoting human rights. Therefore, instead of, once again, shelving recommendations until the next UPR in 2022, Pakistan should accept the recommendations and publicly adopt an action-based plan that ensures implementation, in order to earn goodwill in the global forum.