2023 marked by gross economic injustice, disregard for Constitution: HRCP

Report notes with deep concern that irreparable political divisions spilled over into public acts of arson and violence on 9 May 2023.

ISLAMABAD: Apart from the political polarization that continued through 2023, resulting in greater restrictions on civil and political rights, the year was marked by acute distress among ordinary people, caused by the cost-of-living crisis and manifested in large-scale protests countrywide.

In its annual report on the state of human rights in 2023, released on Wednesday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has thus called urgently for economic justice and protection of civil rights.

The report notes with deep concern that irreparable political divisions spilled over into public acts of arson and violence on 9 May 2023, following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan. What followed was flagrant disregard for the Constitution as unelected forces tightened their grip on the country’s democratic structures and civic spaces shrank to an all-time low.

The state’s response to the 9 May riots was to quell dissent—to the extent of resurrecting military courts to try civilians, perpetrating enforced disappearances, ordering mass arrests and allegedly orchestrating public disassociation from the PTI among many senior party leaders.

The right to freedom of expression and assembly took a particular hit during the year. The general elections were also delayed well beyond the 90-day constitutional limit on various grounds, including the need for new delimitations on the basis of the recent census.

The rule of law was markedly poor, with a record six-year high in fatalities related to terrorist attacks and counter-terrorism operations and two militant attacks in Bajaur and Mastung, that collectively left at least 117 dead. The practice of extrajudicial killings continued, while street crime and the incidence of mob lynchings surged.

As in previous years, journalists, activists and political workers were subjected to enforced disappearances across the country. In an admirable show of strength, however, young Baloch women mobilized a long march from Turbat to Islamabad to protest against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Among vulnerable groups, religious minorities reported an increasing climate of fear, especially in the aftermath of an attack in Jaranwala, Punjab, in which scores of churches and homes were torched and looted by mobs, following allegations of blasphemy against a Christian man. In the wake of the federal government’s decision to expel undocumented foreigners. Afghan nationals in particular were rounded up in police raids and sent to deportation centres with little to no legal recourse.

Speaking at the launch of the report, HRCP secretary-general Harris Khalique said that the 2023 economic crisis had ‘pushed tens of millions of ordinary citizens to the brink of desperation.’ Commenting on the high incidence of enforced disappearances, he also deplored the role and performance of the Commission of Inquiry of Enforced Disappearances as ‘disgraceful.’

HRCP chairperson Asad Iqbal Butt said that it was critical for the state to fulfil people’s right to education, livelihood and health. Expressing concern over the low rate of trade unionization, he said that attempts to unionize workers were routinely met with harassment and intimidation.

Vice-chair HRCP Islamabad Nasreen Azhar said that that religion continued to be ‘weaponized for political purposes’. Concluding the press conference, co-chair Munizae Jahangir said that the state must protect the right to peaceful protest for all political parties and groups. She pointed out that repressive laws passed in one government’s tenure would return to haunt them when in opposition.

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