The festering situation of human rights in Punjab, otherwise considered the most important province politically, speaks volumes about the performance of the government in this regard. The Human Rights and Minority Affairs Department seems to have been pushed to the back burner, and their work is either restrained or barely existent.
Any department’s presence or absence can be judged by its contributions toward legislation. And in the case of human rights in Punjab, legislation is much needed. Many existing laws require amendments while others need to be promulgated as soon as possible. Besides this, enacted laws must be strictly implemented. However, the situation is given very little priority.
Since April 2008, only three existing legislations have been amended. The Sharif Government is busy pushing draconian bills such as the Cyber Crimes Bill, while not even attempting to lift the unnecessary ban on Youtube. Society meanwhile is becoming increasingly bigoted with the passage of time. The Punjab Government has repeatedly chosen to ignore the rapid long term increase in radicalism in society, sometimes even playing a part in it.
The fact remains that human rights in Punjab have been threatened and violated under both national and international laws too many times. And what terrible violations of human rights have occurred over the years; that too in broad daylight. There have been attacks on minorities and their places of worship, sexual abuse of children, misuse of blasphemy laws, honour killings, rapes and acid throwing incidents, to name a few. Labour laws do not seem to apply. Bonded and child labour are both rampant today with almost all labourers working in life threatening or hazardous environments. To add insult to injury, labourers are also deprived of their dues.
Who can forget the horrific incident of Shama and Sajjad Masih who were burnt alive in the fires of the same brick kiln where they had spent their lives working? The tragedy is that this gruesome crime was based on trumped up charges of blasphemy – a gross abuse of the law. Who can erase from memory the horrendous attacks on religious minorities such as Joseph Colony, the Gojra massacre, and the attack on Ahmadis? Is it possible to forget how brutally and primitively a woman was stoned to death right outside the doors to ‘justice’ – the Lahore High Court, only for marrying of her own choice? Only the truly callous will not feel horror remembering the three year old child who was kidnapped, raped and then left outside Lahore’s Ganga Ram Hospital.
It is only the more brutal incidents the public and the media seem to remember. The many other cases which occur, especially in smaller districts, are overlooked and even statistics don’t convey the whole story because many crimes go unregistered. The government’s knee jerk reaction especially under the PML-N has been only to take a ‘strict notice’ despite some very barbaric and repulsive incidents. Detractors as well as victims’ families pour scorn at the distribution of cheques by the CM in compensation for lives that are brutally and unnecessarily wasted. They consider the lack of action taken by the government to be passive and weak.
Since devolution, only a few bills pertaining to basic rights have been passed. In fact, where the Human Rights and Minority Affairs Department is concerned, since April 2008, no laws have been passed and only three laws have been amended. The amended laws include the Christian Marriage Act 1872, the Punjab Public Defender Service Act 2007, and the Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925. Some other laws that have been passed or amended pertaining to human rights include The Punjab Workmen’s Compensation (Amendment) Bill 2013 (BILL 15/2013), The Punjab Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers (Amendment) Bill 2013 (BILL 13/2013), The Punjab Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2013 (BILL 10/2013), The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Bill 2013 (BILL 18/2013), The Punjab Fair Representation of Women Bill 2014 (Bill No. 4 of 2014), The Punjab Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Bill 2015 during this tenure; and the Government introduced the In-House Working Women Protection Bill 2010 (Bill No. 12 of 2010) during the last tenure.
Much of the active civil society is perturbed regarding some of the other laws that have been pending in the Provincial Assembly for a very long time. These include the Domestic Violence Bill and the Home-based Women Workers’ Bill. While the Child Marriage Restraint Bill has been amended, there are several detractors who believe that the prescribed punishment is not enough and the age limit for marriage should be changed from 16 years to 18 years. The Anti-Torture Bill has also remained pending for a year.
Every year in March, the Government announces a special women’s package, but little is done to implement the laws of this package. For example, the Sexual Harassment Acts are still not fully implemented, especially in the case of harassment in a public place. Part of the reason is that the government – and even NGOs – have not bothered to spread awareness of this law. Legislative experts opine that much of the Punjab Assembly seems to be influenced by conservative and regressive elements as well as religious groups, so some bills will always be viewed as controversial.
Although the Government of Sindh is faced with a similar situation, the Sindh Assembly does end up passing more legislation, even when faced with challenges from hard-line elements. For example, the Sindh Assembly was able to amend the age limit for the Child Marriage Restraint Act despite the Council of Islamic Ideology’s objections to the matter. Meanwhile, to placate the European Union regarding the GSP Plus, the federal government has also recently formed the National Commission on Human Rights.
Ultimately, the problem lies in the lack of implementation of existing laws. However, Usman Sarosh Alvi, Additional Secretary of the Human Rights and Minority Affairs Department categorically denies that any laws are not being implemented. Alvi said, “I would rate the situation of human rights in the province as quite good…I am not denying that there have been instances of human rights violations, but that will happen in a province with such a high population, and it should be understood that people are frustrated, which is half the reason of their crimes.”
Although the defensive attitude of the Additional Secretary speaks volumes about the department’s own perceptions, the problem also lies in what the system is meant to be.
“We cannot act on an issue till there are complaints directly made to us,” he says, not specifying how many complaints come to them, but he does say that not many come. “Either the department must be notified, or in another situation, the department must take note of cases itself. But more than often, the situation cannot be handled by us because it is a matter of another department. For example the case of bonded labour in the province lies in the domain of the Labour Department rather than us. Juvenile justice is an issue which the Law Department must handle. Even most time when there are cases of violence, and when the police and district administration are involved we do not get involved.” Furthermore, Alvi stated that the Department was formed in 2008 and lacks personnel, and finances. “We do not have proper field information,” he admited eventually. As far as the implementation of international conventions is concerned, he says that the Treaty Implementation Cell meant especially for the GSP plus treaties which falls under the Secretary Law Department is responsible for the international law implementations.
The dire need for a more aggressive approach on behalf of the Human Rights and Minority Affairs Department is needed.
[Ms. Xari Jalil is Lahore based researcher and journalist]