In focus: rights and accountability

That Pakistan has expressed unconditional commitment to the international human rights framework is significant – given that human rights defenders are often denounced as working for a ‘foreign agenda’

In focus: rights and accountability

Earlier this week, Pakistan completed its first review of its implementation of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

The scathing conclusion highlights Pakistan’s glaring failures in complying with CAT provisions. This should prompt all state institutions into reconsidering their perfunctory engagement with UN human rights mechanisms. Pakistan ratified CAT in 2010, undertaking to put in place a wide range of legislative, administrative, judicial, policy or other measures to effectively implement the Convention provisions. In January 2016, four years behind schedule, Pakistan eventually lodged its initial report under CAT with the Committee Against Torture – the body of 10 independent experts from around the world, established as per Convention directives to monitor State parties’ compliance with and implementation of its provisions. At the review, the Committee posed a number of questions to Pakistan’s delegation, led by Minister for Human Rights, Senator Kamran Michael. Minister of State for Law and Justice Barrister Zafarullah Khan, Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights Rabiya Javeri Agha, as well as seven other government representatives comprised the rest of the delegation.

In the next couple of weeks, the CAT Committee will consider Pakistan’s responses and information provided by other stakeholders, in particular: domestic and international non-governmental human rights organisations including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; the International Commission of Jurists; the Justice Project Pakistan; OMCT as well as others. The CAT Committee will then adopt and issue its concluding observations, including a number of highly authoritative recommendations to enhance Pakistan’s compliance with the Convention.

At the review’s start, the Committee expressed its disappointment at the absence of key stakeholders, including representatives from the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), despite the latter’s express mandate to work on ensuring Pakistan’s compliance with international human rights instruments. Terming the no-show not deliberate, the government delegation claimed issues of “procedure and time-frame” were the cause. This is unconvincing, especially as the CAT review was scheduled months ago, giving the government adequate time to coordinate with the NCHR and make arrangements for its participation in the examination. The Committee also regretted that officials from the military or intelligence agencies were not present to respond to a number of serious human rights allegations against their members.

In both its report and in the delegation’s opening remarks, Pakistan stated that torture and other ill-treatment are adequately criminalised, adding that independent mechanisms are in place to conduct impartial investigations and hold perpetrators accountable. Tellingly, however, the delegation gave no example of any state official ever being convicted in connection with human rights violations. Instead, in the state report, it described convictions of private individuals for murder and rape as examples of the authorities taking torture very seriously.

The CAT committee pointed out this glaring omission a number of times, and repeatedly requested specific data from the state delegation for the cases where a member of the police, military or intelligence agencies was successfully prospected and convicted for acts amounting to torture. To underscore its concern on this point, the Committee referred to a number of cases where there were specific allegations against members of the security agencies, including Zeenat Shahzadi’s alleged enforced disappearance in August 2015; Aftab Ahmed’s alleged torture and extrajudicial killing in May 2016; the abductions of at least four bloggers from various cities in the country in January 2017; and the enforced disappearance of at least 28 people by the armed forces, which had been acknowledged by the Supreme Court in 2013.

In its replies, the delegation referred to a number of ongoing disciplinary proceedings and criminal investigations. However, it failed to provide even a single example of a successful prosecution or conviction, including in the specific cases highlighted by the Committee. The delegation’s response led the CAT committee to remark what many in the country have been saying for years: mechanisms for accountability and oversight for law enforcement and security agencies are completely absent in Pakistan, leading to a crisis of impunity for human rights violations.

This observation was not well received by Barrister Zafarullah Khan, who responded by alleging that the delegation was being put “in the dock”, and that “castigation” by the Committee could discourage the state delegation from constructive engagement. His fiery – and at times antagonistic – responses were in stark contrast to the statements made by the Human Rights minister, who concluded by categorically stating that Pakistan took its international human rights obligations very seriously and looked forward to working with the Committee on improving areas where shortcomings existed. Statements expressing Pakistan’s unconditional commitment to the international human rights framework are perhaps one of the key takeaways from the review, as they also serve as an important acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders. This is particularly significant in the current context, where human rights advocates are often chastised for working for a “foreign agenda”, including by many members of the government. Questions by UN human rights bodies and the international community related to Pakistan’s human rights situation and the “crisis of impunity” are not going to stop any time soon. In July, the UN Human Rights Committee is scheduled to review Pakistan’s implementation of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights for the first time, and later this year, Pakistan is up for its third Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council. And then there is also the assessment by the European Commission on Pakistan’s compliance with conditions of the GSP Plus trading status, an EU trade policy instrument that aims to encourage developing countries to comply with core international standards in return for trade incentives.

It is time Pakistan moves beyond lip service and starts taking concrete steps on implementing its obligations under human rights treaties.


The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists. She can be reached at, Twitter: reema_omer