By Zubeida Mustafa
A WEEK before Sabeen Mahmud, the ever-smiling ‘active’ human rights activist was gunned down in Karachi, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan launched its annual State of Human Rights report for 2014.
It is widely believed that Sabeen’s decision to host a seminar on Balochistan invited a terrible retribution from the powers-that-be. It is indeed saddening that this staunch defender of all the rights covered by the HRCP report is no more amongst us to act as society’s conscience to remind us that each of us becomes an abettor when the state violates any right the citizen is entitled to and we remain silent onlookers.
The HRCP report for 2014 expectedly paints a grim picture of the state of human rights in Pakistan. We are witness to that on a daily basis. Some of the highlights the report quotes are shocking. The number of people killed in terrorist attacks in 2014 was 1,723 while 3,143 were injured. Many of these were targeted — 210 people lost their lives in sectarian attacks, 12 doctors, 13 lawyers and 45 members of polio vaccination teams fell victim to the killers’ bullets.
The report speaks not just of the conditions of insecurity of human life we have to live under, it also notes that people’s freedoms — be they of movement, thought, association, religious beliefs or conscience — have been under attack. The HRCP has been recording these meticulously since 1991. Its reports come as annual reminders of how Pakistan has been sliding into the quagmire of bestiality when it comes to human rights to which all members of a civilised society are entitled.
There’s room for improvement in HRCP’s annual report.
In addition to political rights, the HRCP also collects basic information on the disadvantaged sections of the population — women, children and labour (but not people with disabilities though the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is one of the core human rights instruments and Pakistan is its signatory and has also ratified it). There are also chapters on education, health, housing, environment and refugees. The report confirms that these sectors are, unfortunately, not in good shape.
The fact is that it has now been recognised that the blatant violation of the political and civil rights of the citizens of this country has affected their quality of life as well. Is it worth it to ensure a person’s security and freedom but give him a life without dignity and the basic amenities of life such as food, water, healthcare and education? In 1994 the Supreme Court had recognised in the Shehla Zia vs Wapda case that the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes with it.
The responsibilities the HRCP has taken on itself are phenomenal and one admires its courage and commitment that have resulted in its stellar performance as an independent watchdog of human rights in Pakistan. However, a restructuring of the annual report is now due. Thus one would like the HRCP to take a clear-cut and unequivocal stand on social justice and equity. To its credit, the commission has taken note of a number of shameful moves of private-sector schools to make good education inaccessible to the children of the poor and thus perpetuate a class-based society. But the HRCP stops short of condemning the commercialisation of education or making recommendations on the fees issue.
Similarly, healthcare that is the most neglected social sector in Pakistan needs a stronger stand to be demonstrated by the HRCP in respect of policy approaches, especially in the age of neoliberal economics. The report takes note of some institutions and their excellent performance. Yet it does not take a stand on the inequities in the health sector or make suggestions to narrow the gap in performance between the public- and the private-sector health institutions, a situation where the poor die of disease because they cannot afford the expensive treatment available in private hospitals.
Without political freedoms many other rights are trampled on. But democracy and constitutionalism as we understand them do not necessarily facilitate social justice and the concept of welfarism if the right directions are not set. Human rights should be treated in a holistic manner with a strategic balance being struck between the political, social and economic development of a society.
Sabeen Mahmud knew the art of striking this balance. In T2F, all issues under the sun came up for discussion to create public awareness. Whether they were the critical discourses on education organised by Anita Ghulam Ali, or the talks and dance performance held to pay tribute to development worker Perween Rehman (shot dead in 2013), the launch of artist/social activist Fauzia Minallah’s book Chitarkari & Banyans: The Pursuit of Identity, or the introduction of Rumana Husain’s Yeh Karachi, Sabeen happily opened wide the doors of T2F for them. For her these were all human rights issues and she gave them all space willingly.