Although the expansive mahogany-panelled rooms of the UN’s imposing buildings can seem a world away from the daily realities of human rights defenders, events like Pakistan: Towards the 3rd Cycle of the UPR serve as a reminder of the unique and essential role that civil society plays in the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council (HRC). The event was co-organised by APC, Bytes for All, Pakistan and Forum-Asia during the 31st session of the HRC, currently underway in Geneva. As the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, commented during the presentation of his annual report to the Council, the ratification of human rights treaties is mere theatre unless there is implementation. Informed, dedicated civil society engagement is key to ensuring that promises made by states translate into meaningful action.
One way that civil society can engage is through the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), where the human rights records of all 193 member states are subject to review at 4.5 year cycles. The reviews offer the opportunity for a comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation in each country and allows each member state to make recommendations to their “peers” on steps they can take to improve human rights. This year marks the end of the second cycle of reviews and next year will see the third cycle of reviews begin, including the review of Pakistan in April 2017.
This offers the opportune time to look back, assess the current situation and see where progress has been made and where it is still lagging. Human rights defenders have an important role to play here, bringing first-hand experience of the human rights situation on the ground as well as empirical research which can often be lacking.
At the session Pakistan: Towards the 3rd Cycle of the UPR, four women human rights defenders from Pakistan – Gul Bukhari, Gulalai Ismail, Tehmina Zafar and Qurratulain (Annie) Zaman – spoke about the current human rights situation, drawing directly from their own experience. They also brought to light research conducted by Bytes for All, which includes an analysis of progress on the recommendations that Pakistan received in previous cycles. This research was used to draft a brief report which was available at the event and had been informed by two consultations with civil society groups held in-country at the beginning of this year.
The rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief, association and assembly, the environment for human rights defenders and civil society, and rights of women were the focus of the session’s lively discussion. The speakers pointed out that the overwhelming preoccupation with national security and the tendency to see human rights defenders as “enemies of the state” have led to repressive laws and measures over the past few years. These limit the ability of human rights defenders to work by curtailing access to funds and criminalising work on a wide variety of human rights issues like freedom of religion and expression, sexual and reproductive health rights and countering violent extremism. Censorship, blocking and filtering of speech online are commonplace, while harassment and attacks on journalists remain widespread. The speakers pointed to the impunity that perpetrators of attacks continue to enjoy.
They also highlighted how important it is to address the repressive effect of civil society monitoring procedures and anti-terrorism legislation on the operation of human rights defenders. There is a real need to develop a national policy framework to protect human rights defenders so that they can continue to do their job of defending the constitutional rights of citizens.
Still, it’s not all bad news – it was pointed out that some progress has been made, with one speaker, Gul Bukhari, citing the recent passage of the Women’s Protection Bill and Hindu Marriage Act, which it is hoped will positively impact the rights of women, including marginalised women, across the country.
The presentation of this interim report’s findings at the side-event is only the beginning of civil society involvement in Pakistan’s 3rd UPR. Engagement will continue over the next few months, so watch this space!
For more on Advocacy for Change through Technology in Malaysia, India and Pakistan, check out the APC-IMPACT project.