a letter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
August 22, 2013
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
Prime Minister’s Secretariat
Re: 10 Steps for Improving Human Rights in Pakistan
Dear Prime Minister Sharif,
As your government completes its first three months in office, we write to you about the human rights situation in Pakistan and to suggest 10 areas in which you and your government could take steps to address current and longstanding problems.
In May Pakistanis went to the polls, effecting an historic transition of power through a constitutional process from one elected government to another, advancing Pakistan’s transition to a genuinely democratic state. Your party has been provided an important opportunity to cement the process begun in 2008 towards creating a rights-respecting government that abides by the rule of law and restores the public’s faith in democratic institutions.
However, as you know, many challenges remain before this goal can be reached. We urge you to take concrete steps to protect fundamental civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in the areas specified below. A proactive human rights agenda is essential for Pakistan’s development.
Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to a constructive relationship with your government and would be pleased to discuss these and other matters of mutual concern with you at any time over the course of your term in office.
Ali Dayan Hasan
Ten Steps for Improving Human Rights in Pakistan
1. End Sectarian Attacks
Since January this year well over 300 Shia Muslims have been killed in targeted attacks across Pakistan, the vast majority from the Hazara community in Balochistan province. In 2012, well over 350 Shia Muslims were killed in the country, over 100 of them from Balochistan’s Hazara community. Sunni militant groups, such as the ostensibly banned Lashkar-e Jhangvi, operate with widespread impunity across Pakistan, as law enforcement officials and security agencies effectively turn a blind eye to attacks.
Human Rights Watch urges the Pakistani government to apprehend and prosecute those responsible for attacks on the Shia and other groups at risk. The government should direct the military and civilian agencies responsible for security to actively protect those facing attack from extremist groups, and to address the growing perception, particularly in Balochistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, that state authorities look the other way when Shia are attacked. It should increase the number of security personnel in Shia majority areas and enclaves at high risk of attack, particularly the Hazara community in Quetta. The government should also actively investigate allegations of collusion between Sunni militant groups, and elements within military intelligence, and paramilitary forces, and hold accountable personnel, regardless of rank, found to be involved in criminal acts.
2. Protect Religious Minorities
Pakistan’s blasphemy law continues to be used to target religious minorities and those who express unpopular views about religion. At least 16 people remain on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 are serving life sentences. On March 9, 2013, hundreds of Christians had to flee their homes in the city of Lahore as over 100 houses owned by them were looted and burned by a rioting mob over an allegation that a Christian resident of the colony had committed blasphemy. Police and administrative authorities did not intervene to protect the victims or their property. The blasphemy law facilitates such abuse and Pakistan’s refusal to reform or repeal the law creates an environment of persistent vulnerability for minority communities.
Human Rights Watch urges the Pakistani government to implement a moratorium on the use of the blasphemy law, which often leads to violence, as a first step towards its repeal.
Members of the Ahmaddiyah religious community continue to be a major target for blasphemy prosecutions and subjected to specific anti-Ahmadi laws across Pakistan. They face increasing social discrimination as militant groups and extremists use provisions of the law to prevent Ahmadis from “posing as Muslims.” Human Rights Watch calls on the Pakistani government to repeal the ban on Ahmaddiyah religious practice and hold accountable all who engage in or incite violence against Ahmadis.
3. Protect Women’s Rights
Violence against women and girls—including rape, “honor” killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage—remains a serious problem because of a combination of poor laws and poor enforcement of existing laws.
Despite the high levels of domestic violence—some local nongovernmental organizations say about 70 or 80 percent of Pakistani women experience some form of domestic violence—parliament has yet to enact a law to prevent such violence and protect women who experience it. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh have all enacted laws against domestic violence.
Similarly, steps to enact a law to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 in Pakistan have been stalled. According to a 2012 report by the United Nations Population Fund, nearly 25 percent of all Pakistani women in the 20-24 age group were married before they turned 18. Child marriages expose girls to early pregnancy and childbirth, which entail significant risk of damaging health consequences for girls and their children.
Pakistan should increase the minimum age of marriage to 18, a global minimum that many other countries have adopted.
There have been several thousand “honor” killings in Pakistan in the past decade. However, provisions of the Qisas and Diyat law that allow the next of kin to “forgive” the murderer in exchange for monetary compensation remain in force, and continue to be used by offenders to escape punishment.
Human Rights Watch urges you to take steps to enact legislation against domestic violence, increase the minimum age of marriage to 18, and take measures to improve investigation and prosecution of “honor” killings and acid attacks, including revising laws that facilitate impunity.
4. End Abuses and Enforced Disappearances in Balochistan
Human Rights Watch notes that Attorney General Munir Malik recently informed the Supreme Court that over 500 persons reported to be missing in the country were in the custody of state security agencies.Human Rights Watch has also recorded continued enforced disappearances and killings of suspected Baloch militants and opposition activists by the military, intelligence agencies, and the paramilitary Frontier Corps. Yet Pakistan's military and other agencies have continued to resist efforts and attempts to locate ethnic Baloch who had been subject to “disappearances.” Baloch nationalists and other militant groups also stepped up attacks on non-Baloch civilians in 2012 and 2103.
Pakistan’s government should take all necessary measures to end enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detentions, and fully investigate and prosecute as appropriate all persons, regardless of position or rank, who order or carry out such abuses.The government should make public the names and whereabouts of detainees and charge detainees with a recognizable criminal offense and promptly bring them to trial before a court that meets international fair trial standards or release them.The government should communicate publicly and formally with the agencies responsible for disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and other abuses, including the army, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI), Intelligence Bureau (IB), Frontier Corps, police, and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, ordering an end to abuses and facilitate criminal inquires to hold perpetrators accountable.
5. End Militant Abuses
Suicide bombings, armed attacks, and killings by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their affiliates continue, targeting politicians, journalists, and religious minorities, as well as state security personnel. Hundreds of schools have been attacked. Many of these attacks have been claimed by groups such as the Haqqani network, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and other al-Qaeda affiliates.
While many members of the armed forces have been killed or wounded fighting the Taliban and others, elements of the army, ISI, and other agencies have long protected militants. For instance, leaders of militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi live openly while inciting violence, yet the state takes no action.
Human Rights Watch calls on your government to end the protection enjoyed by militant groups and ensure that the law is applied equally to all persons in Pakistan, regardless of political affiliation. Perpetrators of acts of violence should be promptly investigated, fairly prosecuted, and appropriately punished. Ensure that attacked schools are quickly repaired or rebuilt, and destroyed educational material is replaced so that children can return to school as soon as possible.
6. End Counterterrorism Abuses
Pakistan’s security forces have routinely violated basic rights in the course of counterterrorism operations. Suspects are frequently detained without charge or convicted without a fair trial. Thousands of suspected members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other armed groups—who were rounded up in a nationwide crackdown that began in 2009 in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas—remain in illegal military detention; few were prosecuted or produced before the courts. The army continues to deny lawyers, relatives, independent monitors, and humanitarian agency staff access to persons detained during military operations. Terrorism suspects, particularly in the Swat Valley, reportedly died inexplicably of “natural causes.” However, lack of access to the detainees has made independent verification of the cause of death impossible.
Human Rights Watch urges your government to take all necessary measures to end extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions and prosecute those responsible. Independent monitors must be provided access to all detainees and detained terrorism suspects should be provided access to lawyers and to communicate with family members. Your government should promptly ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to visit Pakistan at the earliest.
7. Ensure Media Freedom
A climate of fear impedes media coverage of the state security forces and militant groups. Journalists rarely reported on human rights abuses by the military in counterterrorism operations, and the Taliban and other armed groups regularly threatened media outlets over their coverage. In 2013, at least four journalists have been killed in Pakistan and at least eight journalists were killed in Pakistan during the previous year, No one was held accountable in any of these cases. However, as has been the case since the return to civilian rule in 2008, journalists vocally critical of the government experienced less interference from elected officials than in previous years. Human Rights Watch hopes that the culture of political tolerance for media criticism in evidence during the previous elected government will continue.
Human Rights Watch would like to draw your attention to recent curbs on the international media in Pakistan and urges your government to take remedial measures. On May 11, election day, theNew York Times Islamabad bureau chief, Declan Walsh, was unexpectedly and inexplicably expelled from the country. Despite protests by Pakistani and international journalists, the authorities have not allowed Walsh permission to return to work. Human Rights Watch urges your government to speedily rectify this wrong by Pakistan’s caretaker government.
The government should also act to end the harassment, intimidation, use of coercion, violence and other abuses against members of the media by state security forces and militant groups. Human Rights Watch urges you to enact a legal framework for intelligence agencies as recommended by the Saleem Shahzad commission of inquiry and create an ombudsman to address “grievances of anyone who complains of misconduct, or suspected misconduct by intelligence officials and agents.” The government should ensure international media is allowed unhindered access in Pakistan and freedom to report from the country without fear of expulsion.
8. Restore Human Rights Ministry
Human Rights Watch noted with alarm your government’s decision to abolish the federal Ministry of Human Rights. The abolition of the ministry is likely to harm government efforts to promote and protect human rights and will result in human rights concerns being side-lined in government decision-making.
It is a conflict of interest and bad policy to merge the Human Rights Ministry with the Law Ministry. The Law Ministry represents the state in court cases where the state is accused of rights violations, whereas the mandate of the Human Rights Ministry requires it to seek redress for victims of human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch urges your government to revoke this decision.
9. Constitute National Human Rights Commission
In May 2012, President Asif Ali Zardari signed into law a bill creating a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The bill was passed with the support of your Pakistan Muslim League (N) party in the national assembly and senate. More than a year later the NHRC has not yet been constituted and the consultation process required to constitute it has yet to begun.
Human Rights Watch urges you to promptly constitute the NHRC so that it can begin functioning. This is a simple step and a test of your government’s commitment to human rights.
10.Restore Moratorium on Death Penalty
Pakistan’s 2008 moratorium on the death penalty was widely hailed across the world. Human Rights Watch notes with alarm a statement by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry that your government does not intend to renew the moratorium on the death penalty which expired on June 30, 2013. However, it appears that a review of the policy to end the moratorium is underway and Human Rights Watch urges you to ensure that it remains in place. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of convicts on death row in the world. Many, if not most, of the over 7,000 prisoners on death row have been convicted through a judicial process that does not meet international fair trial standards.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment. A majority of countries in the world have abolished the practice. On December 18, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution by a wide margin calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions. If your government is to be seen as an upholder of human rights standards, it should restore the moratorium with immediate effect.