Pakistan’s ranking with regards to fundamental rights stands at 115 out of a total 128 countries, according to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2020 released in November this year.
The government has consistently failed to address key human rights issues despite obligations under human rights treaties to which the state is a party, such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Zeeshan Yaqub, a minority rights activist, stated that discrimination against religious minorities was formalised in the country’s first Constitution in 1956, and kept being subsequently reinforced in the following years. The 1973 Constitution entails various provisions advocating protection of minorities, but they have never been fully implemented in practice, and are contradicted by other legal provisions. These include the Constitution’s several declarations favouring the majority religion. Moreover, the 5% minorities’ quota put in place in the 1980s to prevent discrimination in public sector employment does little in terms of affirmative action, and in fact exacerbates social discrimination and stereotypes against minorities. This is because many municipalities fill their quota by employing minorities in undesirable positions such as sanitation workers. Similarly, minorities continue to suffer from myriad issues, ranging from legal cover vis-à-vis their marriages to appropriate representation in legislature.
Pakistan stands at number eight on the global slavery index. Even though the Bonded labour System Abolition Act 1992 was enacted in 1995, to-date its covenants have not been implemented, according to Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan’s Mahar Safdar Ali. He explained that there are primarily two kinds of bonded labourers — brick kiln workers and farmers. “There are an estimated six million brick kiln workers under bonded labour, along with forty million women and men working under similar conditions on farms,” he claimed, adding that they operate without any legal protections such as social security or old-age benefits. Members of minorities working as bonded labour face additional threats of violence owing to their marginalisation. Similarly, the very few number of such workers who are registered to vote are often not allowed by their owners to cast a ballot as per their legal right.
Rights of children
The provinces of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, along with the Islamabad Capital Territory and Gilgit-Baltistan regions, continue to violate the rights of the girl child to be free from all forms of discrimination, inhuman and degrading treatment by continuing to legally allow the marriage of underage girls. Only Sindh has enacted a robust child marriage law which stipulates that both husband and wife must be of 18 years of age at the time of marriage — though its implementation on the ground is also wanting.
Women’s rights activist Zahida Malik said that while the state unequivocally declares that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone, and in fact calls for special measures to ensure the complete participation of women in all spheres of life, we are still a long way from achieving that goal. Several local laws still explicitly distinguish against women, particularly the Evidence Act and Zina Ordinance where evidence of women is inadmissible and severe punishments may be imposed on them under a variety of offences.
Despite a handful of ameliorating measures such as a national rights’ law and setting up of special help desks, lives of transgender persons remain in a miserable condition, with a severe lack of educational and job opportunities which compel them to start begging or becoming sex workers. Zanaya Choudhry, a transgender rights activist, said hospitals and police do not know how to deal with transgender persons despite them having legal protections.
The blasphemy laws continue to be used as a legal weapon against Christians, Ahmadis and members of other religious groups, including Muslims, explained Nadeem Anthony, a human rights lawyer, adding that the government has not taken any adequate measures to prevent their abuse.
Nighat Dad, director of Digital Rights Foundation, said that under the Constitution’s articles 19 and 19-A which pertain to freedom of speech and right to information, all these fundamental rights apply in the same manner in the digital space as well. Sometimes, it is a lack of understanding of the government or lack of will to give the same freedom to online users, she added.