Minister of State Hina Rabbani Khar said that as Pakistan’s social landscape represented a rich tapestry of diversity and pluralism

Minister of State Hina Rabbani Khar said that as Pakistan’s social landscape represented a rich tapestry of diversity and pluralism, it has always been a land of many religions and beliefs, peacefully co-existing in harmony for centuries.

“Regarding minority rights, she quoted the country’s founding father Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah as categorically saying, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State”.

The minister of state said that Pakistan’s Constitution, in its Articles 3 and 25, guarantees the right to equality for everyone without any distinction, including the fundamental freedom to profess religion and visit places of worship.

Individuals belonging to religious minorities are equal citizens of Pakistan, and as a responsible State, we are fully committed to protecting and promoting their fundamental rights and freedoms, she added.

“That is why the Government has taken swift action against any reported incident. It is a matter of public record that more Muslims have been charged under blasphemy law than non-Muslims,” she stated.

To curb the misuse of blasphemy laws, the Hina Khar said that the Government has instituted several administrative safeguards. For example, Section 211 of the Pakistan Penal Code stipulates punishments against anyone who intentionally initiates false charges.

The Government has notified the National Commission of Minorities to protect and promote minority rights, she said, adding, “We have established a Minorities Welfare Fund for development schemes and maintenance of minorities’ religious sites.”

“We are providing financial assistance and scholarships to students from minority communities on merit. We also continue to undertake affirmative measures to improve the participation of minorities in all walks of public life, from employment to representation in the Parliament.”

“Our domestic law provides full legal coverage to customs and practices of minorities in personal and family matters. Appropriate checks and balances have been embedded in marriage registration to counter forced conversion and marriages.”

In a landmark decision, the Minister of State mentioned the Islamabad High Court’s ruling that any marriage with an individual under 18 years old is void ab initio.

“We remain convinced that a robust criminal justice system, responsive to national circumstances and aligned with civil and political rights, is central to strengthening human rights protection.”

To curb torture and protect fair trial and due process rights, the Minister of State stated that the government has enacted the Torture and Custodial Death Act in 2022.

In compliance with the UN Convention against Torture provisions, of which Pakistan is a State Party, the Act elaborates a comprehensive definition of ‘torture’; criminalizes torture, death, and rape in custody; and reinforces the right of the victims to legal remedy, as guaranteed in our Constitution, she added.

To handle juvenile cases in a human rights-responsive manner, the minister of state said that the Juvenile Justice System Act was enacted in 2018. “This detailed legislation lays out a mechanism to verify the alleged offender’s age, stipulates the provision of legal assistance to juveniles at State expense, and encourages social rehabilitation and reintegration by establishing observation homes and rehabilitation centers.”

She said, “New jails are being constructed in many parts of the country to reduce prison overcrowding. By encouraging alternatives to incarceration, provinces are also amending their parole laws for assessing offenders’ risks and needs, ensuring that conditions of release or license are met and rehabilitation provided.”

The minister of state said the Government has also completed a detailed study about the situation of women prisoners in the country and advised all relevant authorities that international standards and best practices, as contained in the Nelson Mandela and Bangkok rules, are implemented during prison management.

Pursuant to the recommendation accepted during the last UPR, a draft bill that criminalizes enforced disappearances as a separate offense was undergoing parliamentary procedures, she said, adding, “We have a clear policy of zero tolerance against this heinous crime.”

The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances expeditiously examines and addresses alleged cases of missing persons. The Commission continues to provide a free-of-cost legal remedial platform to affected families at the grass-root level, she added.

The minister of state said the Commission’s overall disposal rate of cases was more than 70 percent, which was very encouraging.

She said that Pakistan continues to face security threats due to a very challenging regional environment, adding, a direct consequence of protecting citizens against this scourge was the imposition of the death penalty.

Pakistan had imposed a moratorium on the death penalty for several years, the minister of state said, adding, however, the moratorium was lifted after the horrendous terrorist attack on Army Public School (Peshawar) in 2014.

She highlighted that the death penalty was only applied in the most serious crimes in full compliance with due process of law, under a final judgment rendered by a competent court, and with the right to seek pardon or appeal for commutation.

“There have been no executions in Pakistan since December 2019, and between 2010 and 2018, the Supreme Court overturned death sentences in 78% of cases. In 2021 the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a landmark ruling in Safia Bano v. Home Department, established critical safeguards and protections for defendants with psycho-social disabilities. In line with the ICCPR, the Court barred the execution of mentally challenged individuals.”

Furthermore, the minister of state said that Pakistan continues to internally review colonial-era laws to narrow the scope of capital punishment. “As a result of this review, we amended the Railway Act in October 2022, reducing capital punishment to a life sentence for acts of sabotage targeting railway networks.”

She said, “We attach high importance to the freedom of opinion and expression. To this end, the landmark Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act was enacted in 2021. In the follow-up to the Act, a Commission is being constituted, which will serve as a grievance redressal platform for journalists in cases of harassment, intimidation, and physical attack.”

To meaningfully operationalize people’s constitutional right to information, the minister of state said that the government has significantly empowered Pakistan Information Commission as an autonomous body. “The constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly, and the people have continued to enjoy this right,” she added.

The minister of state said that the COVID pandemic has once again underscored the indivisibility of all human rights. “One of the key takeaways from the fallout of this unprecedented pandemic is that all rights must be treated on equal footing with equal emphasis and that realization and enjoyment of social and economic rights provide the best social protection and safety net.”

“Pakistan considers social and economic rights, including the right to development, as a rallying point of our national human rights and sustainable development priorities. We have accordingly taken policy and institutional steps to alleviate poverty, reduce inequalities and provide an adequate standard of living.”

She said that the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) was a flagship initiative to promote and safeguard our citizens’ social and economic rights.

“After the pandemic outbreak, the program provided an optimal delivery system to help the most vulnerable segment of the population with scale and speed. An amount of approximately PKR 180 billion to around 15 million beneficiaries was disbursed in emergency cash, focusing on minorities, women, and transgender persons.”

The minister of state said that Pakistan has also developed a National Population Action Plan to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health by taking multi-pronged measures, such as forging partnerships between public and private sector health facilities.

She said, “A new nationwide drive to fight child malnutrition has been in full swing since last year. We have extended coverage of our shelter program for the homeless. We have added food kitchens for the homeless and the poor.”

“A National Education Policy Framework 2018 has been formulated to accelerate the pace of universal and equal access to quality education by all. Its implementation is underway,” she added.

As an active member of the Human Rights Council, the Minister of State that Pakistan believed in constructive engagement and cooperation with the UN Human Rights machinery, adding, Pakistan regularly reports to the relevant

Treaty Bodies about the implementation status of the international human rights conventions to which it was a State Party.

“In 2022 alone, we submitted our periodic reports under the international conventions on civil and political rights; torture; child rights; and elimination of racial discrimination. In 2020, during our systematic review, the Committee on the UN Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women recognized Pakistan’s domestic efforts in this area.”

“We have consistently extended political and financial support to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Pakistan also has extended invitations for country visits to four Special Procedures on Foreign Debt, Extreme Poverty, Education, and Disabilities,” she added.

The Minister of State said that Pakistan has also endeavored to respond regularly to the communications sent by the UN-independent human rights experts.

“We fully subscribe to the view that States are primarily responsible for promoting and protecting human rights. We also understand that advancing human rights is not a one-time exercise but a long-term commitment that entails sustained

institution-building, legal reforms, and policy revamping.”

“We are mindful that while we have made progress, there is room for further improvement. And to this end, our government is fully resolved to advance the human rights agenda, a vibrant democratic polity, and a peaceful and inclusive society.”

“We are determined to leave no stone unturned to promote our citizens’ welfare, well-being, dignity, freedoms, and rights,” she maintained.

The minister of state said as a democratic representative, she fully believed that any government’s raison d’être was to improve people’s lives and livelihoods, which means realizing and enjoying their fundamental rights and needs.

“At international human rights platforms, Pakistan will continue to endeavor to build bridges and promote consensus, constructive engagement, and dialogue,” she resolved.

The minister of state thanked the Troika members-Argentina, The Gambia and Nepal for facilitating Pakistan review.

She said since its establishment 15 years ago, the UPR mechanism has served as a solid platform for engagement and dialogue. It has stimulated concrete progress in promoting human rights based on time-tested principles of sovereign equality, universality, non-selectivity, and indivisibility of all rights.

“It represents an excellent global best practice to deliberate and develop recommendations to advance universal respect for rights, freedoms, and dignity for all. Therefore, preserving this cooperative mechanism as an enabler of dialogue among States must remain a shared priority,” she maintained.