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Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference during her mission to Pakistan

Islamabad, 7 June 2012

Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.

Before giving a brief overview of my impressions during my four-day visit here, I would like to thank the Government for inviting me to Pakistan.

Since arriving on Monday, I have met with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, his Advisors on Human Rights and National Harmony, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I have also held talks with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court in Punjab Province, and with the Supreme Court Bar Association. While in Lahore, I also met the Senior Advisor to the Chief Minister of Punjab on issues relating to the devolution of powers to the provinces. And yesterday, here in Islamabad, I met the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Rights and the Special Committee of the Parliament on Kashmir.

Civil society organizations, journalists and lawyers have for many years played a vital role in promoting human rights in Pakistan during military dictatorships and civilian governments alike, and I met many of their leading representatives in both Islamabad and Lahore.

Pakistan is at a very important juncture in its efforts to consolidate democratic civilian rule. Since the restoration of democracy in 2008, the Government has taken a number of key initiatives on human rights. During the past four years, for example, Pakistan has ratified the two key overarching international human rights treaties – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

During my talks with the Government, I stressed the importance of translating these treaties into national laws. The Government has assured me that a draft national law on torture is very close to completion and could be adopted by the National Assembly in as little as three months time. This is very welcome news, since it is essential that a clear definition of torture and the fact that it is a crime under any circumstances must be enshrined in national law if the practice is to be eradicated.

Similarly, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires an updated legal framework before it can begin to bring tangible improvements for people with disabilities; and the two Covenants – which between them cover the entire range of fundamental human rights – inevitably require reviews and amendments of national laws to bring them in line with the State’s international obligations.

One of the most fundamental themes underlying both Covenants is that there should be no discrimination whatsoever. All rights should be available to all people in Pakistan, irrespective of their gender, religion, social group or any other consideration.

Pakistan has made some advances in this respect, but has a long way to go in other areas. For example, in its 18th amendment to the Constitution, Pakistan has made a progressive commitment to provide universal primary education, and I hope it will seize this opportunity to reform and update its school curricula and materials to better promote tolerance and human rights, especially with regard to religious and other minorities.

The government has informed me that it is undertaking a study to identify elements in the school curricula which incite discrimination against particular religious groups and minorities. Other forms of entrenched institutional discrimination – with the Ahmadis particularly badly affected – need to be tackled at the legislative, administrative and social levels. As the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said in his address to the Constituent Assembly in Karachi on 11 August 1947, “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the State…”

After so many years during which so little progress has been made on issues relating to women’s rights in Pakistan, it is now possible to discern some breakthroughs, albeit still limited in scope. The National Assembly has adopted a number of important new laws designed to protect women and girls from violence, including the amendment to the penal code on the awful crime of acid attacks which scar not only the victims but Pakistan’s reputation at home and abroad. I have recommended that effective monitoring and reporting mechanisms are put in place to guarantee implementation and enforcement of these laws and that efforts are made to ensure women and girls have much better access to protection and redress.

The number of women in important positions has increased markedly in recent years. I was particularly impressed by the dynamic and determined Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, and I hope they are able to build on the momentum they have gained since the number of women in the Senate and National Assembly was increased through the reserved seats and quotas.

Nevertheless, the overall picture of women’s rights in Pakistan, especially in rural areas, remains grim. A lot of attention has been given this week to the death penalty allegedly imposed by a local jirga in Kohistan on five women simply for dancing at a wedding. The full facts of this case remain to be established, but the allegations are illustrative of the type of restrictions and dangers many Pakistani women have to face, and how much further they have to go before they enjoy the fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled. The very low literacy rate of women and girls especially in areas such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is very worrying and calls for immediate actions and interventions. I urge the authorities to redouble their efforts to improve the situation of girls and women in all areas.

The Kohistan case illustrates another of Pakistan’s major problems, which is the existence of parallel justice systems such as jirgas and the separate harsh and inadequate legal system in the FATA, where some of the key protections contained in the Constitution do not apply. I welcome the fact that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has observed that jirgas are illegal, and also commend its decision to take swift and decisive action to get to the bottom of what precisely happened to the five women in Kohistan.

A much more detailed analysis of Pakistan’s legal system has been carried out by the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Ms. Gabriela Knaul, who published an initial analysis at the end of her visit on 29 May and will follow up with a more comprehensive report on the situation in Pakistan next June.

She was first of the UN’s independent human rights experts to be invited to Pakistan for 13 years. I am glad to hear confirmation that visits by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances will also take place in the near future, and have urged the Government to extend further invitations to other independent UN experts whose analyses and recommendations are extremely helpful in developing specialized responses to particular human rights problems. A visit by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, for example, would provide valuable guidance to the Government of Pakistan both on the issue of the legality of United States drone attacks on suspected militants in FATA, and on the spate of killings believed to have been carried out by militant and criminal organizations and state military intelligence agencies in Baluchistan, as well as in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and other parts of the country.

I welcome the President’s signature last week of the newly adopted law to establish a National Human Rights Commission in Pakistan, joining six other SAARC countries among more than 100 countries worldwide which already have independent national human rights institutions. I have urged the Prime Minister to ensure an open and transparent process to appoint commissioners of the highest calibre and independence, whose leadership will be the key to this institution’s success.

I am also pleased the Government has legislated to strengthen the National Commission on the Status of Women, and to link it with the National Human Rights Commission, and I hope it will follow suit with the enactment of a similar child right’s law and creation of a dedicated child rights commission, as well as the pending law on domestic violence.

I also commend the Prime Minister and President for the de facto moratorium they have maintained on the application of the death penalty during the past four years. In my meeting with the Prime Minister I urged him to cement this important legacy by reviewing the cases of the more than 8,000 people on death row, and reducing the number of capital offences contained in the Penal Code and other laws.

These are achievements of which the Government and the people of Pakistan, who have struggled courageously against military dictatorship, intolerance and extremism, can feel very proud. Pakistan will have an opportunity to report on this progress when it undergoes its second Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council in October 2012. That process should generate further recommendations for reform, and I hope these will be incorporated into a time-bound National Human Rights Action Plan.

This will be all the more important in the context of the significant devolution now underway from the federal to the provincial level under the 18th amendment to the Constitution. While I believe devolution has great potential to enhance human rights, care must be taken that it does not leave gaps in implementation and protection. Human rights are not just a federal government responsibility or a provincial government responsibility – they are an obligation at all levels that flows from the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution and in the international treaties Pakistan has ratified.

During my visit, I have had the opportunity to hear many different perspectives from the highest level of government to representatives of the most disadvantaged and excluded communities. It has left me with an impression of a country that has great energy and capacity which could take democracy and development to a new stage. But it is also a country where there is a fundamental problem of inequality, not only between the rich and poor, or between one region and another, but in equal protection under the law.

Equality before the law is not only the cornerstone of the international human rights treaties Pakistan has ratified, it is an essential building block for sustained democracy.

I have heard from various groups, including Ahmadis, Christians, Shia, Hindus, Sikhs and Dalits about their sense of injustice and despair when acts of violence, including deadly bomb attacks, and other abuses against their communities go unpunished.

I have heard about the vulnerability of religious groups, including Muslims, to trumped up blasphemy charges, and the difficulties courts and lawyers face in dealing with the intimidation, pressures and white-hot emotions surrounding such cases.

While acknowledging the enormous challenges facing the people, security forces and government of Pakistan, including constant vicious attacks by armed extremists and criminal organizations, I am concerned by allegations of very grave violations in the context of counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations. These include extrajudicial killings, unacknowledged detention and enforced disappearances. The issue of disappearances in Baluchistan has become a focus for national debate, international attention and local despair, and I encourage a really determined effort by the Government and judiciary to investigate and resolve these cases. Impunity is dangerously corrosive to the rule of law in Pakistan. For this reason, I welcome the Prime Minister’s recent initiative to relaunch political dialogue and development and to bring security operations in the province under greater civilian control. Yesterday, during my meeting with him, he promised a policy of “zero tolerance” for such abuses.

Equality before the law and true democracy will only be achieved if there is genuine accountability of ALL state institutions to the elected civilian government and independent judiciary. During my visit, I heard of many instances in which the abduction, killing and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders and lawyers are alleged to have been carried out by powerful and largely unaccountable state institutions, especially the military intelligence services. This situation was brought into stark relief earlier this week, when it was revealed by Pakistan’s highly respected human rights defender and former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Asma Jahangir, that she has been informed by a reliable source of a plan “at the highest level of the security apparatus” to have her killed because of her courageous and outspoken exposure of human rights abuses.

I visited the home of Ms. Jahangir – who in addition to her many accomplishments in Pakistan is also well-known and admired internationally after a total of 12 years as a UN Special Rapporteur – in order to discuss this deplorable development and to offer my support. Yesterday, I discussed her case with the Prime Minister who assured me that the Government has provided her with extra security, and that he and the President have called her to inform her of their efforts to ensure her safety. I urge them to extend this level of responsiveness to other less known people who face similar threats, and to launch an investigation to identify the sources of these threats and take appropriate action.

Asma Jahangir’s situation, along with the still unresolved killing of the investigative journalist Saleem Shehzad in May 2011, and many other similar cases, drive home the unwelcome message that the democratic reforms and recent human rights advances in Pakistan can all too easily be undermined by certain non-state and state forces which do not care either for true democracy or for the human rights and well-being of Pakistan’s 190 million deserving citizens.

The country is facing many complex issues and major challenges, which will not be easily overcome. During my visit here I have offered the Government the assistance of my Office. We would be glad to help in any way we can in a sustained effort to improve the human rights of all Pakistanis.

Thank you.

Listen to the audio of the High Commissioner's statement (MP3)


UN Human Rights, country page – Pakistan: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/PKIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact:

In Islamabad:
Stacey Winston: +92 (0) 300 850 2397 / stacey.winston@undp.org
Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:
+41 79 506 1088 / rcolville@ohchr.org

In Geneva:
Ravina Shamdasani: +41 22 917 9310 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org
Xabier Celaya: +41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org

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