The release of State of Human Rights in 2020, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)’s flagship annual report, needs to jolt both the state and government out of their complacency that a neoliberal, hidebound regime will deliver to Pakistan’s people the rights and freedoms to which they are legally and constitutionally entitled.
Assessing the Covid-19 crisis through a human rights lens, HRCP finds that the pandemic aggravated existing inequalities, leaving millions of vulnerable workers at risk of losing their livelihoods. The Benazir Income Support and Ehsaas Programmes, which the government sensibly made part of its approach to the pandemic, likely saved thousands of households from sinking deeper into poverty, but these programmes are only a small facet of what a robust, pro-poor strategy should look like. A pivotal step by the government could be to make the right to health a fundamental right under the constitution and invest in preparedness, quality, and access.
That local government elections were delayed long past the deadline in all four provinces—thereby violating the Elections Act 2017 and negating the spirit of the 18th constitutional amendment—is cause for serious concern. The Covid-19 pandemic is precisely the sort of situation that warrants effective local governments on the ground.
The pandemic was also a huge blow to educational institutions, with students compelled to attend online classes to the detriment of thousands in Balochistan, the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan, who had little or no access to reliable internet connections.
That State of Human Rights in 2020 was released on World Press Freedom Day should give the state pause for thought. This is now the third year running in which HRCP has underscored escalating curbs on freedom of expression and opinion in its report. From the abduction of senior journalist Matiullah Jan to the arrest of Jang Group chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, media groups continue to be pushed into towing the line. Worryingly, the National Accountability Bureau continued its operations as an instrument that violates fundamental human rights, including the right to fair trial and due process, among other things.
Prisons in Pakistan remain sorely overcrowded, with an occupancy rate of 124 percent. This is marginally lower than in 2019, but the ever-present risk of infection in the country’s prisons shows that the state has failed in its duty of care. On a welcome note, the death penalty was awarded to at least 177 persons in 2020—a substantial fall from at least 578 persons in 2019.
The long-awaited bill aimed at criminalising enforced disappearance has still not been passed despite commitments to this effect by the incumbent government since 2018. Indeed, despite the fact that the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has failed to address entrenched impunity, the government extended the latter’s mandate by another three years.
Meanwhile, Balochistan remained especially vulnerable to excesses of power, from the extrajudicial killing of Hayat Baloch, an unarmed student, by a Frontier Corps soldier, to the shooting of four-year-old Bramsh and allegations that the men responsible had been sent by the alleged local leader of a ‘death squad.’
If 2020 is the year that changed everything, let 2021 not prove to be the year in which nothing changed at all.