Parliament, judiciary urged to protect rights

Asma Jahangir Conference highlights pressing issues

Our Correspondent April 29, 2024


Discussions on the second day of the Asma Jahangir Conference on Sunday covered topics like enforced disappearances, military courts, the radicalisation of politics, and shrinking space for women and minorities.

The conference themed 'People’s mandate: Safeguarding civil rights in South Asia’ drew participation from human rights activists, lawyers, law students, civil society representatives and foreign delegates.

During a session, rights activist Mahrang Baloch stressed the importance of parliamentary and judicial intervention in resolving the issue of missing persons for real democracy to thrive. She highlighted threats faced by the families of missing persons.

Former advocate general of Islamabad Jahangir Jadoon highlighted the alleged helplessness of the courts in cases of enforced disappearance.

In a session on the repatriation of Afghan nationals, Mehbouba Seraj from Afghanistan said, "I am disgusted at how Afghans have been expelled by a neighbour such as Pakistan, which has played a role in bringing Afghanistan to its current state."

The director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre called for international collaboration to determine the future of Afghanistan, and criticised the interference of Pakistan as well as Iran, Russia, and China in Afghan affairs, saying, “It is compromising Afghanistan's security.”

Human Rights Watch Asia Division Associate Director Patricia Gossman described the dire situation faced by refugees returning to Afghanistan and stressed the need for international attention and assistance.

Mudassir Javed lamented the lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan, particularly affecting women and children. He questioned the absence of support from the international community, given their promises to Afghan refugees.

Christine Chung, a human rights officer at the OHCHR, announced that Pakistan's human rights situation would be reviewed in Geneva in August, raising concerns about its obligations under international law. She warned that Pakistan would face tough questions regarding its failure to implement the obligations in policymaking.

During a discussion on ‘Challenges to women, minorities and transgender participation in elections’, former parliamentarian from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Samar Bilour recounted the difficulties she had faced as a female politician in the province.

Dr Saveera Prakash, a politician representing minorities in Buner, disclosed facing accusations of exploiting her identity as a woman and a minority community member during her election campaign.

During a session on 'The cost of violence’, Olivier de Frouville, Chair of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, urged Pakistan to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

In a session on electoral reforms, John Cushnahan, a former member of the European Parliament, recounted his experience in Pakistan during 2002-04 while leading an election observation team. "Upon arrival, I encountered a hostile reaction, including from the ECP." The team's early arrival was perceived as an attempt to catch pre-election rigging, contrary to expectations of a smooth election day.

Senator Taj Haider said that true resistance serves as the real firewall for ensuring free and fair elections.

Addressing the session on ‘Fundamental rights: Parallel judicial systems’, Abid Saqi, former vice chairperson of Pakistan Bar Council, said there should be no special courts for separate matters such as accountability or other offences as it creates parallel systems which can be unfair and without due process.

Barrister Khadija Siddiqi said 105 civilians have been tried in military courts after the May 9 episode and the conviction rate is such secret trials being conducted by officials and not trained judges is unsurprisingly almost 100%.

Former senator Farhatullah Babar said there should be a judicial inquiry into the incident.

In another session, former mayor of Narowal Ahmed Iqbal said the lack of local government elections has fuelled resentment among the people.

Dr Malik Baloch, former chief minister of Balochistan, stressed the importance of devolving real power to the provinces. “Many departments assigned to the provinces are now controlled by irrelevant authorities, leaving only the establishment functioning effectively," he added.

Former senator Afrasiab Khattak said, "Fulfilling the principles of federalism entails ensuring equitable power distribution among all nations and communities. Unfortunately, the local government structure has consistently suffered during periods of martial law."

Participating in a discussion on ‘Space for dialogue with nationalist parties’, Malik Baloch said the authorities tend to overlook the deeper issues facing Balochistan, merely scratching the surface of the challenges. He asserted that Balochistan has never seen free and fair elections. “But this time, the elections broke all records in tampering,” he alleged.

Balochistan National Party Chairman Akhtar Mengal said that while mainstream parties acknowledge the urgency of resolving the issue of missing persons, they have thus far failed to do so effectively. “The solution lies solely in political means, not through the use of force,” he asserted.

Fauzia Viqar, the Federal Ombudsperson for Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace, explained that less than 13 per cent of women in Pakistan have bank accounts and the police had less than 2% women employees.

During a session on ‘Online hate speech and disinformation’, FIA Cybercrime Wing Deputy Director Mehmood Al Hasan disclosed that the agency receives over 100,000 complaints annually but lacks monitoring powers. “The FIA initiates action solely upon receiving complaints.”

Referring to the ban on social media platform X, Nighat Dad questioned the rationale behind adopting cybercrime laws without a data protection law. She demanded a re-evaluation of such actions.

Replying to a question, Frederick Rawski from Facebook said the company is trying to find a balance in dealing with content related to Israel and Palestine.

While speaking in a discussion on ‘Vigilante justice’, Father Khalid Mukhtar from Jaranwala recounted his firsthand experience of the violent incident at St John's Church and called for expediting the trials of such cases, which have remained stalled for decades. Farhat Haq criticised the ‘politicisation of blasphemy’.

The closing session on ‘The role of political leaders in safeguarding civil rights’ was led by Munizae Jahangir. She expressed disappointment that the participants of a Baloch missing persons sit-in who had travelled from Turbat to Islamabad, were not given a proper hearing even after the elections. She called for an end to military trials of civilians and stressed the importance of lifting all restrictions on the internet. She urged the political parties to form a consensus on a charter of fundamental rights.

Nasreen Azhar, a founding member of the WAF, noted the challenges faced by political parties as agents of change and lamented Pakistan's history of military rule.

Former SCBA president Yasin Azad said, “In my opinion, the strongest institution should be parliament.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2024.


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