Forgotten rights

Pakistan on 06 May 2014
Location : Pakistan | Source :


ENFORCED disappearances. Sectarian killings. Attacks on minorities. Honour killings. The list of gross human rights abuses in Pakistan is long and painful. As one incident of horror overtakes another, there are many aspects of violations that remain under-reported. These are the rights whose denial ordinary citizens suffer every day.

The annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, released recently, is an indictment of the state’s apathy and failure to honour its social contract with its citizens. Under such circumstances, with commitments unmet by the government meant to represent them, it is not surprising that citizens resort to lawlessness and violence.

A recent example is the case of protesters setting fire to the Chashma Sugar Mill in Dera Ismail Khan after effluents released into a stream by the mill resulted in the death of 13 people. There was no effort on the part of the administration to monitor or take action against the polluters till the tragic deaths and the resultant violence. Of course, the sugar mill in the news is only one of countless establishments that violate with impunity the basic rights of the people of the areas they operate in.

While the governments of the past decade or so have been confronted with the deadly threats of militancy and insurgency, the social and economic rights of Pakistanis have remained a low priority for successive rulers. So the current crises of militancy and terrorism have little to do with lack of responsiveness to the basic needs of Pakistan’s citizens; these have been long neglected with the result that people’s socio-economic conditions have steadily deteriorated even as the strengthening of democracy is celebrated.

Apart from constitutional provisions that make it mandatory on the government to ensure social and economic rights, Pakistan has also signed several international covenants that increase its obligations and make it answerable to the world community.

As far as education is concerned, the Constitution of Pakistan (Article 25A) provides for “free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such manner as may be determined by law”.

Moreover, the International Covenant

on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which Pakistan ratified in 2008 goes further to say that the state parties “agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”.

The reason for quoting the ICESCR clause is to emphasise that the international community sees education as more than mere literacy or the ability to pass examinations. Education is inextricably linked to the kind of values associated with a civilised society — respect for the rights of others and tolerance of all.

While the country may be inching towards higher literacy, the quality of education provided in madressahs, government and even private schools is not conducive to either opening up minds or promoting a culture of tolerance. Budgetary allocation for education, just one indicator of the government’s seriousness towards education, remains below 2pc.

The deplorable state of education is matched by the callousness shown towards the citizens’ right to healthcare. While the subject was devolved to the provinces under the 18th Amendment, resources allocated to health reflect the low priority given to the health needs of Pakistanis. As in the case of education, here too Pakistan is failing to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

This is particularly disturbing when it comes to infant and maternal mortality rates which remain only slightly better than two other countries of the world. According to the HRCP annual report, an estimated 423,000 children die every year before reaching the age of five.

Linked to both maternal and child deaths are the poor reproductive health services available to couples. Recent studies have contradicted many of the prevalent myths — among them that conservative male attitude is a big hurdle. Research done in the Punjab revealed that men are keen to adopt family planning but lack of reliable services hold them back. The government has failed to effectively use the skills of its largest family healthcare network — Lady Health Workers.

Of course, statistics continue to shock. But behind each statistic is human suffering which remains unaddressed. Sindh, for example, has the worst statistics for malnutrition, particularly among children. This is all the more scandalous as one sees, in stark contrast, the opulent lifestyles in its capital city.

The recent drought in parts of Tharparkar was nature’s exposé of the many manifestations of poor governance in Sindh. Hundreds of children died, not all due to the drought but from malnutrition and illnesses that remained untreated.

Adding to the poor state of citizens’ health is unchecked environmental degradation. The D.I. Khan incident is just a recent example. A few years ago, a child in Korangi, Karachi, was seriously injured while playing in an open ground contaminated by a tannery. He had to undergo amputation. The rise in cases of respiratory problems, diarrhoea and typhoid is directly linked to pollution.

Democracy has been institutionalised, we are reminded. The much sought after devolution has taken place. What remains unchanged is our rulers’ apathy to basic rights of most citizens.

The writer is chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.


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