Dr. Shireen Mazari took over the mantle of Ministry of Human Rights last year after the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf formed the government. The Ministry considered by many to be a “dead ministry” has been revived in less than a year by the Minister.
Under the leadership of Dr. Mazari the Ministry of Human Rights has initiated legislation in different areas and is also focusing on making a mechanism for the swift implementation of the existing laws.
The Minister spoke to Safety & Security Today on wide ranging human rights issues and challenges. Following are the excerpts of her interview.
S&ST: Your education, professional background and expertise has mostly been related to the field of Defense and Strategic Studies. Human Rights is a different domain altogether, how has your experience been so far as the Minister for Human Rights?
Dr. Shireen Mazari: Yes, my forty years of experience has been in defence and foreign policy related issues. But human rights also relate a lot to international affairs because there are multiple human rights treaties that Pakistan has signed. Human rights is not just confined to the national space in fact it is linked to what is happening in the rest of the world and the international commitments we have made. We have signed seven human rights conventions and we have to meet our obligations under them. I have also been very active for many years when it comes to human rights issues in Pakistan like enforced disappearances. So, I was familiar with the issues and in fact when I got to know that I was not getting the portfolio of Defence or Foreign Affairs, I asked the Prime Minister whether I could be given the portfolio of Human Rights. Some people were surprised when I accepted this portfolio because it was considered a dead ministry but we are now reviving it by taking up the issues and pushing Pakistan to fulfill its international commitments. Moreover, under our constitution there are various human rights provisions that need to be fulfilled.
As far as my experience is concerned, I’d say that it has been very interesting. I refer to it as minefield because you tend to think that human rights is going to be a non-controversial subject but it appears to be the most controversial subject especially in Pakistan. Whether you are talking about rights of journalists, ending enforced disappearances or torture. All these issues are controversial in Pakistan but we have to deal with them.
S&ST: How challenging is your role considering that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) annual report 2018 painted a rather bleak picture (despite numerous positives) of the overall situation of human rights in the country?
In my personal opinion, I think the HRCP report tends to exaggerate a few things. But it is also good in a way because it acts like a conscience for the country. We do have serious issues in our country, the media issue has also come to the forefront because the media was so reliant on the government for constantly pumping in money but now our government neither has the means nor the inclination to use advertisements as a lure or bribe. The media is up in arms because of this, but fact of the matter is that private media is a commercial enterprise so they should raise money through commercial advertisements and not expect the government to subsidize them. We do have areas of concern, but over a period of time the human rights situation in Pakistan has actually improved. It is still not ideal but we have years and years of backlog to clear up and that will take time.
The HRCP report does point to the problems but it should also evaluate how far things have progressed.
S&ST: There are a plethora of laws and legislations that ensure protection of human rights but implementation remains lax. What are the main factors due to which implementation of law continues to be a major hurdle and what is the way forward in this regard?
Non-implementation of laws is definitely an issue. One of the problems in this regard is that after devolution most of the laws that we legislate in the National Assembly are limited to the Federal territory and the provinces have to come up with their own laws.
Another issue is that people are not aware of the laws and their rights. To address this particular issue our Ministry has started awareness programs. One such program was started just one month after I took over the Ministry; this program was regarding women inheritance laws. We are now providing legal assistance to women on inheritance rights. We have a helpline for this and any woman who needs help with her inheritance rights can call up and we will put her in touch with a pro-bono lawyer in her area.
We are also in the process of launching an awareness campaign on child abuse. We have prepared videos and other related material and I am personally visiting schools to spread awareness on the issue of child abuse.
We also have to sensitize the police and the judiciary and have to make sure that laws are implemented whether the powerful break them or the people who are not powerful. We are currently doing a sensitization program for the judiciary on transgender. We have a course running for it at the Judicial Academy in Sindh. We are also in the process of setting up a sensitization program for the police when it comes to transgender because the transgender law is there but it is not being implemented.
We even have to take care of very small things, for instance we got Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) to setup a special ward for transgender, and this special ward was also part of the law. I have also written two letters (one as a reminder) to the Chief Ministers of four provinces to inform us what initiatives they have taken for transgender or to at least create the special wards. Unfortunately, we have not got any response from them so far.
So, there are problems in implementation but we are focusing more on awareness. At the same time we are also looking at potential gaps in the existing laws so we can legislate new laws.
S&ST: Do you think our education curriculum adequately highlights social and human rights issues?
We are currently in the process of preparing a human rights curriculum for classes up to high school. Hopefully, this project will be completed soon and shared with the Education Ministry which is already working on having a uniform curriculum for the entire country.
S&ST: In recent years numerous incidents of alleged extra judicial killings and alleged fake encounters have been reported, particularly in Karachi. What is your take on this particular issue and how do you plan to tackle it?
This issue does not come under the domain of the Human Rights ministry, but as a matter of principle, fake encounters and extra-judicial killings should not be acceptable. It also reflects another aspect; that it is difficult to enforce laws. The police is so politicized and weakened that they are unable to arrest and carry out the proper judicial procedures to punish criminals, so they resort to these awful and unacceptable shortcuts. We also need to reform the police service so that it is able to enforce the laws properly. Police reforms need to be introduced for such aberrations like extra-judicial killings and fake encounters to stop.
S&ST: Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record. Despite the pledges of successive governments to address the issue, such disappearances have not stopped. What is your take on this issue and what are the steps necessary to address it?
I have talked to other Ministries on this issue and we have got a consensus from the various stakeholders to criminalize enforced disappearances by amending the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). This is the easy way to do it and it would not be retroactive. The proposed law is currently being reviewed by the Law Ministry as per procedures.
The other option is to sign the International Convention without ratifying it. There are some articles in it to which we should put reservations to because they wouldn’t be acceptable. However, there is hesitation when it comes to this option because when you make an international commitment you do eventually have to ratify it.
We also need to have closure for the families. People have disappeared years ago and you need to disclose to the families what has happened to their loved ones. Another problem for which we need a legal redressal is that families of missing people cannot deal with the property and bank accounts of those who are missing. After a certain number of years, the person should be declared missing so the families can at least do what is needed with the properties and the bank accounts. This is a problem that rarely gets a mention but it is a very serious problem for the affected families.
We are hopeful that there will be progress on the issue of enforced disappearances because now there is an open debate about it. We also have a law in this regard that the Law Ministry is currently vetting.
S&ST: There are concerns that the media is facing immense pressure and there is unannounced censorship. Do you agree with these concerns or do you think that media is working freely without any hidden pressures?
I don’t think censorship is an issue, as the government simply cannot stop something from being printed that the media wants to print. The government cannot censor talk shows either and they are not censored in anyway if you look at the content and I don’t think the government even has the tools to censor the media. But there are certain guidelines of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) that we haven’t formed, as PEMRA was formed before us. The guidelines require that hate speech, hate material and fake news are not aired and they need to be followed. Fake news is so rampant that the news regarding the newly appointed Chairman of Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) not being a taxpayer was all over social media. But when his tax records were dug up he was paying over ten million in taxes, so there has to be some kind of rationality.
Rather than censorship, it is more an issue of media not getting money from advertisements that has led to the calls of ‘censorship’. Otherwise you see all kinds of content on television screens and in the papers.
S&ST: The Kasur child sexual abuse scandal that surfaced in 2015 and the 2018 murder and rape of a six-year-old girl generated a lot of media debate and child abuse (rampant) emerged as a serious issue. According to a report by NGO Sahil, over 10 children were abused every day (reported cases) in Pakistan in 2018. Despite the wide spread nature of this crime, discussion on it largely remains a taboo. What steps are needed to curb this issue and what role can society and the media play other than the relevant government departments?
Awareness is the key here. Like I mentioned we have prepared short videos on the issue to educate people. We have videos on good and bad touch and how to deal with strangers. I went to one school recently and got excellent feedback from the students. We will soon launch this campaign on a much wider scale.
There is also a need to create awareness that child abuse also happens within families. Strangers are not the only culprits. The taboo has also partially been removed because recently many news channels also ran our videos. More public debate and public exposure will not only create awareness but will also give victims the courage to come forward. There is also a need to ensure that those who do come forward are provided justice and their complaints are not simply brushed aside. But since it is still a very sensitive issue in our society we have to be very careful on how we move forward on it.
S&ST: Despite various laws prohibiting it, child labor remains a major issue (due to rampant poverty). Kids involved in child labor are also an easy target of abuse. What steps are needed to curb the menace of child labour?
Child labour is a serious issue. There is also a problem with regards to definition of Child Labour. The International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions sets the general minimum age for admission to employment or work at 14, in our constitution this age is also effectively 14 but there is also a big contradiction in the constitution. Article 25-A of our constitution states that, “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.” So you are defining a child up till the age of 16. But then the Article 11 of the constitution states that, “No child below the age of fourteen years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment.” So, here the definition of a child is different in terms of the age, and when it comes to other rights like driving licenses, right to vote and identity cards the age is set at 18. We have to resolve this issue when it comes to defining the age of the child. We have also signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which defines the age of the child as 18.
S&ST: The Global Gender Gap Index 2018, ranked Pakistan as the second worst country in the world in terms of gender parity, ranking 148 out of 149 (putting it with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen as the four worst-performers in the world). What are some of the steps that the Ministry has taken (and plans to take) to improve the gender gap?
Gender disparity is definitely an issue but the problem with this particular report is that they used a very small sample size for which I also raised few objections. However, despite the problems there are some positives too. For instance, unlike in Western countries, there’s no wage disparity in Pakistan between genders.
S&ST: In the last couple of years, a number of people have faced cases due to the content they posted on various social media websites. Critics say that Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) is very vague and many cases were allegedly registered against people for merely showing political dissent. What is your view on PECA and do you think it infringes on the citizens right to freedom of opinion and expression in any way?
By and large this law is very similar to some of the cybercrime laws that exist in European countries. Moreover, the misuse of a law does not mean that the law itself is bad. Any law can be misused but most importantly it is up to the state not to misuse laws. In fact in my opinion the law is still not being used strongly enough to tackle the issues of hate speech and abuse of women on social media.
S&ST: Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone has the right to aing adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services. Shortage of affordable housing is major issue in Pakistan (an issue which PTI has vowed to solve), similarly healthcare spending remains low and healthcare facilities are out of reach of the majority of population (PTI’s health cards are a good step to solve this particular issue), can a country like Pakistan that is plagued with economic problems ensure provision of housing and quality health facilities?
Change cannot come overnight. Decades of decay and destruction of state structure cannot be fixed that quickly but the process of change has started. We have established shelters for the homeless which no previous government thought of doing. The ‘Ehsas’ programme has been launched for social safety and poverty alleviation. Similarly, under the Prime Minister National Health Program which is a health insurance scheme, we are providing health cards to the marginalized segments of the society on a priority basis. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa health cards have been first issued to members of the transgender community to address their health problems. So we are moving towards provision of these facilities but it will take time.
S&ST: According to report released by the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) last year, 509 members of Hazara community were killed and 627 injured in various incidents of terrorism in Quetta from January 2012 to Dec 2017. What in your view are the reasons for this failure to protect the Hazaras?
This is a very serious problem and it should be addressed. However, it is a sectarian issue that has been in Pakistan for decades and unfortunately it is very difficult to stop suicide attackers. What we need to do is to put an end to all the proscribed and extremists groups without any exception and we have already started doing that. We also need to strengthen the provincial governments because at the end of the day after devolution of powers law and order issues are very much in the hands of the provinces.
S&ST: Have you identified any specific areas that are in need of urgent attention and are among your top priorities?
Our focus is on implementation and awareness and identifying potential gaps in existing legislations to bring in new legislations. We are also trying to fulfill our commitments according to the constitution and the international treaties we have signed. We are also trying to make the government understand that human rights are now center stage of both foreign and security policy.
S&ST: Any message for the readers of the magazine?
People should get more involved in human rights and other related issues like economic rights. People who feel strongly about such issues should get involved in activism. Critiquing policies through social media and blogs only serves as a catharsis at best.