A little justice

The idea of special procedures for juvenile offenders implies compassionate treatment of accused as vulnerable humans

Peter Jacob April 26, 2016
The writer is a freelance journalist, specialising in International law, rural development and public policy and a director of Centre for Social Justice

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child shall meet in Geneva (May 17 - June 2, 2016) to assess Pakistan’s progress with regards to its commitments on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The process involves interactive dialogues between government representatives and the committee comprising 18 international experts in children’s rights, who have a high level of competence and credibility.

As a standard practice, international and local NGOs working for child rights will participate in the review as a third party. Their articulation of issues and the recommendations is called a “shadow or alternative report”.  Hence, the NGOs participate in the discussion indirectly through the Committee. As expected, there will be several submissions from the NGOs, one importantly from the local coalition of NGOs called the Child Rights Movement Pakistan.

The review shall take Pakistan’s fifth periodic report, submitted in 2014, into consideration, but it can also discuss the previous four reports which include the compliance claims in relation to international law, the “list of issues” sent to the state party and all “recommendations” given by the Committee so far. Thus, the process is designed to cater for all important issues related to child rights in a robust manner.

In the review process at hand, the government responded in March 2016 to the list of issues that the Committee enquired about. Among a host of issues, the committee had inquired about the progress on the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000, commonly referred to as JJSO in Pakistan.

Let’s take a glance at Pakistan’s stance prior to reviews of the international body, to understand trends in our public policy (or lack thereof) regarding child rights in general and juvenile justice in particular.

Our initial country report in 1993, which was rather verbose, carried no specific mention of juvenile justice, though it spoke about certain protections for children in conflict with the law.

Our second report in 2003 was triumphant in nature. It stated: "Till the year 2000, no national legislation was uniformly applicable to children in conflict with the law. Children, like adults, were subject to the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code … Now, with the promulgation of Juvenile Justice Ordinance 2000, such anomalies have been removed.  This ordinance is a federal law and therefore overrides all the provincial laws.”

Our next report was two years late as usual, so the third and fourth reports were presented together in 2009. Ironically, the JJSO remained largely unimplemented eight years after its promulgation and five years after our last compliance report to the Committee. The regime had changed; therefore, the report frankly admitted the mistakes attributable to the previous regime.

It stated that “Probation is the only system of non-custodial punishment in Pakistan, but there is lack of awareness about the system and its significance. Police, prison officials and even in the ranks of lower judiciary, there is lack of awareness concerning the probation system. The release of children on probation has been severely hampered by the absence of an adequate number of Probation Officers in the country … and several districts are still without a probation officer.”

The fifth report submitted in 2015 informs the committee that the government was considering “amendments in the JJSO for bringing it into conformity with the Convention and other United Nations treaties.”

Hence, if someone wanted to make sense of Pakistan’s compliance with international law on juvenile justice, here is the sequence: no specific commitments made (1993), credit taken for passing legislation that was not implemented (2003), the inability to implement expressed (2009) and new legislation initiated (2015).

Naturally, such progress over 25 years does not make us proud. It is important that we get to the bottom of what it is that ails our system and hampers its progress on law and policies. I picked the JJSO among several examples of failures because the contrast in ideals and practice is easily distinguishable.

Firstly, the idea of special procedures for juvenile offenders or children in conflict with law essentially implies compassionate treatment of the accused as vulnerable humans — something our legal system has stopped believing in. The laws of the past 25 years have generally introduced heavier and longer punishments. Even counterterrorism relies heavily on the idea of hard justice, knowing well that many of the accused or those involved in acts of terror happen to be juveniles. Hence, the legal approach in use and the mindset that it creates in society are in sharp and direct contrast with the concept of juvenile justice.

Secondly, it is pointless dreaming of a justice system that delivers for a particular age group without reforming the larger justice system as a whole. Thirdly, the idea of embracing human rights as a means of institutional reform and overhauling the political system, hasn’t received enough official recognition. Sketchy normative improvements and institutional arrangements remain unsuccessful and ultimately demoralise the implementers.

Generically, the periodic review processes and reporting on behalf of Pakistan cannot become a meaningful exercise unless the gap between decision-making and reporting is abridged. Citizens and interest groups must have a voice in the implementation bodies.

Recently, even though treaty-monitoring cells have been set up at federal and provincial levels to cater to GSP Plus requirements, and the reporting sections of the Federal Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights work laboriously to clear the backlog, there is no process in place in the national and provincial assemblies or cabinets that monitors the implementation of treaty-based commitments.

The rhetoric on improving on human rights compliance cannot satisfy international bodies nor the media and the people of Pakistan. Like elsewhere, Pakistani children have a right to encounter a tender face of justice if and when they have the misfortune of standing in conflict with the law, mostly due to circumstances beyond their control or comprehension.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2016.

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