Pakistan’s human rights: the growing gulf between reality and rhetoric


Pakistani missing persons families hold pictures of their missing people as they staged a demonstration in Karachi in 2007. Scores of individuals and civil liberty groups observe the International Human Rights Day in Pakistan.


Asif Hassan

GENEVA, Switzerland – Governments of developing countries sometimes engage in the rhetoric of international human rights for strategic and self-interested reasons. They create national human rights institutions, enact weak legislation, and ratify international human rights treaties to deflect international and domestic criticism of a worsening human rights record, rather than out of any genuine concern for rights.

A case in point is Pakistan, which was reviewed last week at the inter-governmental Human Rights Council of the United Nations. In her opening speech, Pakistan’s foreign minister Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar boasted of the achievements of the incumbent government. She was careful to play up words such as “democracy” and “women’s rights.” Even drone strikes – or their purported illegality – received a paragraph of attention. Freedom of the media was also mentioned, alongside economic rights.

Yet the government’s opening statement was notable, not for the predictable words that donor states or allies may want to hear, such as "democracy" and "terrorism," but for the absence of words that concern most Pakistanis, such as "blasphemy," "enforced disappearances," "ethnic violence" and "grinding poverty."

Despite the confident assertions made in the speech that 2008-2012 was the “most active period of legislation-making on human rights in the history of Pakistan,” what concerns ordinary Pakistanis is whether significant, empirical improvements have been made in terms of human rights on the ground. The answer is unequivocally negative.

Listening to Ms. Khar, the average Pakistani would have been left wondering whether the review was really about Pakistan or some other distant country. Were other states being sarcastic when they were lavishing uncritical praise on the Pakistani delegation for its “achievements”? Was Ms. Khar referring to the same country where, according to Human Rights Watch, the “human rights situation [has] deteriorated significantly”?

Yes, as Ms. Khar asserted, the government has enacted laws aiming to protect women victims of violence, but at the same time, Pakistan’s rank in the Global Gender Gap Report has fallen even below its previous shameful ranking.

Yes, the media is free, but Pakistan has also become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, especially those critical of its armed forces. And, yes, as Ms. Khar stated, the right to Information (Article 19A) is recognized as a protected right, even as the government routinely bans YouTube to censor “blasphemous material.”

And what about the right to life? Enforced disappearances are still being carried out, with impunity. Arbitrary and extra-judicial killings have become the norm for residents of Karachi. In Balochistan, it is the judiciary, not the government, that has taken the lead in remedying the issue.

Conditions of detention in prisons remain appalling, too. In fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported great difficulties in accessing detention sites, in particular those holding security-related detainees.

As the world knows after the cases of Rimsha Masih and Asia Bibi, the situation for minorities, both ethnic and religious, continues to be untenable.

Abstract references to “democracy” and “economic rights” may sound comforting to foreign donors and governments, but one could imagine Pakistani citizens being worried at least as much about a declining standard of well-being as food scarcity rises and the more or less steady prevalence of corruption since 2008.

It is not that the current PPP government has committed systemic human rights violations or that a military dictatorship or a PML government might have fared better. In fact, the government has done some good things, such as imposing a moratorium on the death penalty, not interfering with the freedom of the media, and allowing opposition rallies and demonstrations to take place without hindrance. During the same period, many of Pakistan’s neighbors have not done well either. India’s rankings on the Human Development Index and on corruption fell sharply between 2010 and 2011, for example.

Rather, the issue is one of matching grandiose propaganda and rhetoric to tragic reality. It takes a lot of misplaced confidence and smugness for a Pakistani government to talk about “achievements” with any credibility or legitimacy, even as the reality remains that, by every empirical measure, the human rights situation within the country has worsened, not improved. The government may have some achievements to its credit but improving human rights is surely not one of them.

Dawood I. Ahmed is a Pakistani lawyer and doctoral candidate in international law and human rights at the University of Chicago Law School. He has worked at the United Nations and Comparative Constitutions Project. His writings have been published in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, DAWN, Express Tribune and other publications.