Pakistan: Economic, social and cultural rights under attack

Pakistan is failing on its international obligations to uphold people’s economic, social and cultural rights, Amnesty International said today, in a submission to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 61st session.

“Pakistan is backsliding on its commitments to economic, social and cultural rights. From shrinking civic space, to the failure to bring laws in line with international standards, widespread discrimination, curtailed workers’ rights and meagre social security, there is much that needs to be done to help some of the most disadvantaged people,” said Nadia Rahman, Amnesty International’s Pakistan Campaigner.

Restricting civil society

Amnesty International is concerned by the restrictions imposed on civil society, shrinking the space for NGOs and human rights defenders.

For example, in 2015, the Pakistani government announced a new policy, giving broad powers to the Ministry of the Interior to review the registration of INGOs based on their funding sources and the nature of their work. The vague and broad provisions in this policy risk undermining the ability of civil society groups to work independently, without fear of being shut down, and gives the government broad discretion to disrupt their human rights work.

Incorporation of Covenant Rights in Domestic Law

Pakistan’s constitution protects many economic, social, and cultural rights, including prohibitions on “slavery”, “forced labour”, and the employment of “a child below the age of fourteen years”. The constitution also guarantees the rights to “freedom of assembly”, “freedom of association”, and the “freedom of business, trade and profession”, among others.

However, the Pakistani constitution does not include all internationally recognized economic, social and cultural rights. Those that are mentioned in the “Principles of Policy” section of the constitution are not justiciable.

Amnesty International calls on the Pakistani government to take all steps recommended to make all economic social and cultural rights justiciable and to implement them, to extend constitutional protections to FATA, and to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Non-discrimination and equality

Marginalized communities in Pakistan continue to face discrimination in both law and practice, on grounds of their gender, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation and gender identity.

Under Pakistani law, a woman’s testimony is deemed “half” of that of a male witness. Reforms to raise the legal age of marriage of girls, from 16 years to 18 years, were blocked by the Council of Islamic Ideology. The Council also blocked a law passed by the Sindh Assembly to prevent the forced conversion of non-Muslim women.

Pakistan’s national parliament did, however, pass legislation last October to close a loophole in criminal law that allowed the accused to escape punishment for committing a so-called “honour killing” if the victim’s family pardoned them.

Amnesty International has recorded a number of cases where women have faced obstacles accessing justice for the violation of their rights.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which carries a mandatory death penalty, violates the rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion.

Christians in Pakistan suffer discrimination at the hands of employers, restricting their access to work.

Transgender persons in Pakistan won a historic right to be recognized as a “third gender” on national identity cards. However, they continue to face discrimination and barriers to seeking employment, healthcare and education.

Pakistan continues to criminalize same-sex consensual relationships.

Amnesty International calls on the Pakistani government to draw up a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy to protect all marginalized groups.

Right to Work and Trade Union Rights

Workers from Pashtun or Afghan backgrounds have been discriminated against by private employers and subject to surveillance and harassment by the authorities, making it harder for them to access or continue work.

Large numbers of people who work in the informal economy have no access to social security, health benefits, or occupational safety. Only 3% of workers in Pakistan are currently unionized. Businesses have increasingly resorted to hiring contract workers, which allows them to dilute the power of trade unions and escape paying pensions and employment benefits.

In recent years, several people have been killed or injured in numerous workplace accidents, especially in the garment and ship-breaking industries.

As noted by the committee, bonded labour continues to exist in Pakistan, despite the 1992 Bonded Labour Abolition Act. This Act is rarely implemented, or used to punish employers for the exploitation of workers.

Amnesty International calls on the Pakistani government to protect the rights of all workers, ensure that everyone has the right to form and join trade unions of their choice, safe and just working conditions, and enforce the ban on bonded labour.

Right to Social Security and Adequate Standard of Living

The Benazir Income Support Programme has had a discernible effect in reducing poverty, but the monthly cash transfers of a mere $15 are not enough.

The Pakistani government must invest in social protection programmes and health and education services.

Pakistan’s agricultural economy is vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, putting even more people at risk of being denied the right to food and the right to water.

Amnesty International calls on the Pakistani government to put in place policies to deal with the potentially negative impacts of climate change on human rights. The government should also ensure that social security systems cover all persons.

Right to health

Pakistan currently spends a meagre 0.45% of its GDP on health, lower than many other low and middle-income countries. The lack of access to public health facilities is the second largest contributor to multi-dimensional poverty in the country.

While maternal mortality has fallen, as many as 40% of pregnant women do not receive skilled prenatal care or full protection against tetanus.

Pakistan’s domestic legal framework continues to criminalize abortion in some circumstances, with prison sentences of three years to ten years.

Sex workers continue to face discrimination in accessing health services in Pakistan.

Amnesty International calls on the Pakistani government to increase public spending on health, make public health services accessible to all, and decriminalize abortion in all circumstances.

Right to education

School enrolment for girls (53%) continues to significantly lag behind boys (60%). In Baluchistan, only 35% of girls go to school. In FATA and the three smaller provinces, there remain fewer schools for girls than boys.

Children living with disabilities, often experience discrimination, are out of school in large numbers and often do not have access to inclusive education. Few school buildings are accessible to people living with disabilities.

Of the schools that do exist, many of them lack drinking water and toilets. In recent years, schools have come under attack from armed groups.

Amnesty International calls on the Pakistan government to take all necessary steps to improve the school enrolment of girls, recruit more female teachers, and identify and remove harmful gender stereotypes and stereotypes against minorities from educational materials.

Right to culture

Armed groups have attacked and killed members of religious minorities, including Shias, Ahmadi Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus.

Sectarian leaders promote the hatred of religious minorities on television, including denouncing them as “blasphemers” and “enemies of Pakistan”, language that has the potential to incite violence.

Amnesty International calls on the Pakistani government to ensure the protection of all historical sites, including sites sacred to religious minorities, and investigate and prosecute all acts of incitement to violence against religious minorities.