The abysmal state of human rights in Pakistan throughout 2021 – a disturbing continuation of the downward trend over past several years – isn’t more shocking than the callousness and insensitivity that the government displayed over these violations. Civil liberties and fundamental human rights continued to be crushed in the outgoing year. Not only were the state institutions indifferent to such complaints, but they themselves engaged in gagging citizens repeatedly, if not actively sabotaging their rights.
It is pertinent to recall the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the member states of the United Nations on Dec 10, 1948. The day is marked all over the world every year with a different theme to remind global community of the gravity of situation and to renew commitment to finding solutions to protect all people from violations of their rights, particularly in that thematic area. The theme for 2021 was ‘Equality – Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights’, which resonated well with the prevailing situation not only in Pakistan but almost all over the world. People, particularly the marginalised communities – lower income classes as well as gender, ethnic, religious, and ideological minorities –continued to suffer due to the discrimination embedded in law, state structure and overall society.
Of the 30 Articles of UDHR, it is difficult to pick one that was not violated in Pakistan. Armed institutions of the state coupled with the political government perpetually indulged in repressing dissent; stifling civic space; muzzling fundamental freedoms of expression, information, assembly, and association; enforced disappearances; intimidation and targeting of journalists; arbitrary detentions of rights defenders; etc. At the societal level, misogyny, sexism, vigilantism, and violent attacks on religious minorities, women, and gender minorities continued with impunity.
From forced conversions of Hindu and Christian girls, violence against women, and crimes against gender minorities, to enforced disappearances, curbs on freedom of expression, and stifling of dissent, Pakistan witnessed extreme cases of substantial violations of human rights throughout the year 2021. The state was seen as complicit or capitulating to the violators, when not covertly behind the violations.
Several journalists, majority among them was women, were targeted on social media with overt validation of the ruling party members and government officials. Media remained under government’s thumb using public advertisements, inter alia, as a tool to dictate news agenda. News websites remained at the risk of arbitrary suspensions without any due process whenever they crossed the invisible lines drawn by state institutions on reporting issues of public interest. Using these tactics, the state ensured media blackouts of public protest events against the state policies and actions (e.g., in Janikhel and Gawadar to name but two).
Several journalists, majority among them was women, were targeted on social media with overt validation of the ruling party members and government officials.
Religious extremism continued to pose threat
Anti-blasphemy intensified after massive rallies by the banned Islamic extremist outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) demanding release of their detained leader. The rallies turned violent resulting in the deaths and serious injuries of several policemen in the line of duty. The govt, however, responded to the excesses by surreptitiously making dubious deal with the violent organisation. This strengthened the sense of impunity for violence committed in the name of religion. Consequently, days before the International Day of Human Rights, the manager of a goods factory, a Sri-Lankan by nationality, was lynched to death while the crowd cheered for and lionised the principle accused. That horrific incident left the country shocked for days. Entire political class except few leaders from religiously inclined political parties condemned the violent assassination at the hand of a mob.
Dissenting political voices, including human rights defenders, politicians, and media persons, continued to face state oppression. Idris Khattak, a veteran human rights defender from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who was picked up and handed over to the military without due process, was presented to a military court and still faces trumped up charges of espionage among others.
Ali Wazir, a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remained incarcerated for making a speech criticising security forces for human rights abuses. Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa was quoted as saying during an in-camera briefing to journalists that there would be no concession for Wazir for he had offended armed forces. Wazir was granted bail in one of the case earlier this month, but he remains incarcerated in another case.
Enforced disappearances continue unabated
Despite civil society’s persistent protest against enforced disappearances, the practice continued throughout this year pretty much like previous years albeit with greater impunity. The government introduced a bill in the National Assembly purportedly to criminalise enforced disappearances without meaningful consultations with victims’ families and human rights defenders. Even after its passage from the parliament, neither civil society nor the victims’ families have seen the text of the final law. The earlier copies circulating on social media, however, contain some questionable clauses that criminalise victims’ families who accuse state institutions of enforced disappearances without irrefutable evidence. This puts the families in an impossible position to ever stand up to violation of their right to dignity, security, and safety of life, when it happens at the hands of all-powerful security agencies.
Despite civil society’s persistent protest against enforced disappearances, the practice continued throughout this year pretty much like previous years albeit with greater impunity.
Culture of impunity
The current government’s propensity to run Pakistan as a majoritarian caricature of the originally conceived federal model that the constitution of Pakistan guarantees it to be, has intensified the inequalities among the coalescing federating units. This continuously translated into violations of citizens’ rights in different parts of the country throughout the year. The consequences of this model could be seen sometimes in the form of military check posts humiliating citizens and violating their privacy with impunity in the name of security in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, or evictions and restrictions due to development and infrastructure projects, or enforced disappearances of (predominantly) Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi activists, or digital apartheid (to date there are vast areas in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where internet and mobile networks are continuously or intermittently suspended arbitrarily putting people in perpetual disadvantage).
Universally acknowledged rights like equal and free access to justice, education and health care services, and safe livelihood continued to be violated by the state. The government kept implementing economic policies and administrative measures without transparency and meaningful accountability directly affecting the lives of common people. The situation remained unchecked by the elected representatives mainly due to the executive-dominated parliamentary system, hijacked by the state institutions that are forbidden from political actions.
The only thing different in Dec 2021 from Dec 2020 is this little figure on calendar and the intensity of violations of citizens’ rights.