Illustration by Essa Malik
Illustration by Essa Malik

It came as no surprise that the annual report for 2016 by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) did not show any significant improvement in Pakistan’s record on human rights. This record for many decades has been a bleak one and, at least in some respects, appears to be growing bleaker by the day. Clearly something is very wrong.

Perhaps the most alarming detail contained in the report was the fact that 728 Pakistanis were added to the list of missing persons in 2016. This is the highest figure in the last six years and raises the number of people unaccounted for in the country to 1,219, according to the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, the report says.

There was also a wider suppression of dissent, with six journalists and a blogger killed during the year and an increase in attempts to intimidate or censor the media. New cyber laws were introduced for this purpose, adding to the already existing climate of fear.

With the focus on death penalty returning as a measure to counter terrorism, 426 persons were sentenced to death over the previous year and 87 of them were executed. At the same time, attacks on security forces by terrorists continued, with 211 militant attacks in 2016 directed against law enforcement agencies. The Islamic State claimed several of these attacks, adding a new dimension of horror to Pakistan’s disturbing extremist scenario.

Groups traditionally deprived of their rights did not fare much better than before despite the passage of some new laws intended to protect them. A revision of electoral roles exposed a massive discrepancy spread across the nation in the number of male and female voters on the electoral register.

This discrepancy stood at 12.52 per cent with only 42.4 million women able to vote compared to 54.6 million men, the report points out. Violence against women also carried on as before with legislative changes having no apparent impact on their safety.

According to the HRCP’s monitoring, there were more than 2,500 incidents of violence against women over the year covered by the report, while 13 of the 23 murders that took place in Gilgit-Baltistan in the previous year involved ‘honour killings’ of women. Some of these problems were linked by the authors of the report to the state’s failure to use resources to improve living conditions for people.

The report highlights the fact that 44 per cent of children in the country had “stunted growth” while laws to protect workers and children were poorly implemented. Punjab and Balochistan both cut their budgets for education and the number of children who are out of school stood at 24 million at the end of 2016.

While this figure showed a slight improvement to the previous year, the number remained amongst the highest in the world. The health of people was no better than their education with “around 50 million people suffering psychological problems”, as per the report, and a mere 0.9 per cent of the gross domestic product being spent on healthcare.

People’s access to justice also remained a problem with three million cases pending in courts. There was also an increase in incidents of violence towards judges and lawyers. With intolerance unchecked, 15 people, including 10 Muslims, were booked for blasphemy and added to the massive jail population in the overcrowded prisons across the country. Four Ahmadis, three of them doctors, were murdered during the year.

The parliament passed 51 laws in 2016, double the number as compared to the previous year. This activism by parliament did not, however, translate into any visible improvement in most sectors of life.

The courts did take action in a number of cases involving human rights, including restrictions on travel within the country and overseas, but as problems continue to mount, Pakistan quite evidently struggled to manage its massive problem in ensuring rights for its people and giving them due cover from the law to protect their basic security and their access to fundamental needs.

This was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue under the headline "Human wrongs". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a former newspaper editor and is associated with human rights activism in various capacities.