UN human rights committee includes issues from B4A-APC submission

By Tehmina Zafar

Welcoming news from Human Rights Committee (HRC) to take up specifically internet-related human rights issues among many others from a joint submission for the detailed review of Pakistan in the next year’s session June-July 2017.

In a joint statement, Association of Progressive Communication (APC), Bytes For All (B4A) and Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) suggested a list of questions to be included for review. These list of issues are based on internet-related human rights highlighting issues from the recently implemented Pakistan Electronic Crime Act (PECA) 2016. Controversial clauses of PECA put undue restrictions on online freedom of expression, right to freedom of association and assembly and right to privacy among many others.

In a statement asking for clarifications from the government of Pakistan, HRC has asked the questions on the situation of internet-related human rights situations in the country, includes issues on the state of religious freedoms when it comes to exercising religion by minority groups. This is not limited to asking the state on implementation of laws and formulation of legal framework and policies in compliance with the Covenant as ratified by Pakistan in the previous years.

In an eight-page long document, HRC seeks to get answers on a variety of issues that will be taken forward in a final review session of the country. A platform for the state to respond and a unique opportunity for human rights based organizations to discuss the issues with the influential states and lobby to get them to respond to the ground situations by suggesting objective recommendations.

Posed questions provide an opportunity for the human rights bodies and activists to lobby states and governments to adhere to its international obligations and help create a conducive environment for the citizens regardless of their religions, sects, genders and other division to exercise their right to free expression, religious practices, civil liberties and so forth. The list is extensive but not limited to asking clarification and more information on these issues.

  1. Constitutional and legal framework within which the Covenant is implemented – Only two years into the setting up of National Commission of Human Rights, it isn’t fully functional and still lacks the authority to take up human rights cases on its own. Attributed by the lack of funding for the commission, it has not been able to play a significant role in supporting human rights work or initiate any approaches to support human rights mechanisms in the country.
  2. Non-discrimination and equality between men and women – The committee seeks to get more clarity on anti-discrimination provisions of articles 25-27 of the Constitution that cover all prohibited grounds of discrimination are wether in line with articles 2 (1), 3 and 26 of the Covenant. Also the committee notices the discriminatory treatments with sexual, religious and ethnic minorities and seeks to know if equivalent rights are granted to them.
  3. Violence against women and domestic violence – This has been a problem and without much available data as most of the cases do not get reported. HRC committee does not only seeks to get some data but also asked the government of Pakistan on practical implementations of the recently passed violence against women bill in the Punjab provincial assembly and what mechanisms have been put in place to do the similar kind of legislation in other provinces or the country’s federal system. The role of Council of Islamic Ideology also needs to be clearly established and the implications caused by the statement from the council that justifies ‘lightly beating’ of the wives.
  4. Right to life and security of person – Among other concerns, the foremost review HRC intends to address is that of enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings. It has been almost impossible for victims’ families to file the first investigation report at the local police stations subjected to pressure to withdraw from filing cases or present heavy bribes to register the cases. The HRC committee seeks to have more information on the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, including on its mandate, power, composition and financial and human resources, and on the activities it has carried out to date. The laws allowing for death penalties and the implementation of juvenile justice system needs to be clarified on how it works and if it is compatible to the international agreed upon legal frameworks.
  5. Counter-terrorism measures – There are serious concerns on the Pakistan Protection Act and that law enforcement officers are alleged to misuse this act to not only search someone without a warrant but to also withhold information relating to a detainee or accused. It is important for the committee to understand what mechanisms have put in place to ensure this Act is not misused or it doesn’t violate basic rights of every citizen.
  6. Torture, ill-treatment and deprivation of liberty – Specifically mentioning this is the realization of the importance of the rights of individuals even when they are accused or captured. Specifically in the cases of forced disappearances many a times dead bodies are recovered. Extra judicial killings deprive the victim to seek legal support even if guilty. The committee, based on the information received, asks clarification of what systems have been put in place in end the culture of impunity.
  7. Freedom of religion, conscience and belief – As in the constitution Ahmadis are declared as non muslims and have been since living in extremely restricted and dangerous environment including endangering their lives if they publicly announce their faith. The committee seeks to know from the government of Pakistan that Ahmadis, has the right to profess, practise and propagate his or her religion and to exercise his or her rights without interference, as provided for in article 20 of the Constitution. And how religious and Ahmadi-specific laws are compatible with article 18 of the Covenant and with article 20 of the Constitution. As Ahmadis are continuously targeted, the committee has requested providing information on the measures taken to prevent and prohibit hate speech and hate crimes against Ahmadis and other religious minorities and on the efforts made to remove religiously biased content from school textbooks and the curriculum.
  8. Privacy and freedom of expression – This is an area of concern for the netizens, people engaged with media industry and activists who are constantly posing questions, criticizing and suggesting changes for social change or in terms of human rights development. The ask includes question on:
            1. Data collection, keeping and processing
            2. State surveillance to be consistent with Article 17 of the covenant.
            3. Licensing requirements for network providers to be compliance with Article 17 of the covenant.
            4. Concerns on the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Bill 2016 refers to overly broad definitions and offences, extensive powers to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority for blocking, filtering of the content and issuing guidelines to the information system service providers.
            5. Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has an excessive controls on media content, intimidation and killing of journalists, activists, human rights defenders and lawyers, decriminalization of defamation.

Right to freedom of assembly and association – The state is asked to provide information on limitations on the right to freedom of assembly and association, on how many protests have been forbidden by a magistrate and on the procedures for appealing a magistrates decisions. The document mentions specific instances to seek clarification of issues relation to restrictions on the right to freedom of association and assembly.

Many of these issues are raised in an earlier joint submission to HRC. Providing an in-depth view of the issues Haroon Baloch, in his recent blog, discusses the list of issues as mentioned in the actual submission to HRC. He also articulates the implications current set of practices and regulatory framework poses to the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, right of privacy and need of equal treatment of sexual and religious minorities and affects on the human rights situation in the country in general.

The Human Rights Committee is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties.

Pakistan Ratified ICCPR and is obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights are being implemented. One year after the endorsement, the states must report to the Covenant and then usually after four years or whenever the Committee requests the states. The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations are given to the states for either commending them on their efforts to ensure or to make suggestions to improve the human rights situations in the country.

Before the committee comes back to look into the responses provided by the states, this is an opportunity to advocate with the relevant UNSRs, other important stakeholders, states on the issues. Active campaigning around the review will be helpful in getting the voice heard at the right time to make an influence.

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