LAHORE: The second session of the Asma Jahangir Conference titled “Justice for Empowerment” concluded at a local hotel here on Sunday.
The second day discussions were espoused by the late Asma Jahangir’s work and activism. A wide range of discussions focused on protection of fundamental rights, justice for all and impunity for none, freedom of expression and challenges to implementing “rights legislation”.
Among speakers, the distinguished were Justice (retd) Shehram Sarwar Ch, Shireen Mazari (Minister for Human Rights), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party), Rana Maqbool (PML-N Senator and former IG Punjab), Kamran Arif (Council Member of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), Ayaz Sadiq (former Speaker of National Assembly), Farhatullah Babar (former Senator), Akhter Hussein (advocate of Supreme Court and Member of Pakistan Bar Council), Afrasiab Khattak (former Senator) and Bushra Gohar (leader of Awami National Party).
Addressing the conference, Bilawal said: “Today our democracy faces many dangers from none else but politicians themselves. Anti-democratic forces come in many forms. Democracy is in danger, human rights are in danger. The PPP would resist if 18th Amendment is rolled back. The PPP workers sacrificed their lives for democracy in the country.”
He acknowledged the sacrifices of Asma Jahangir. According to him, Asma stood with common man. She provided help to women, children, workers, etc. She was the voice of the voiceless.
Shireen Mazari acknowledged the issues of human rights and said: “We will solve the issue of enforced disappearances. The ills of the present system cannot be put on the shoulders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. We will bring reforms in the system. The National Action Plan was not implemented by the previous government.” Ayaz Sadiq said five professors were handcuffed unfortunately. He criticized the ‘selective accountability process’.
On the occasion, Afrasiab Khattak said that if 18th Amendment is subverted through extra-constitutional methods, the smaller provinces will be forced to demand equal representation (parity) in NA, a formula used by dominated elite of that time to counter the Bengali majority. After the 18th Amendment, direct interference of the army into politics was stopped. Unfortunately, the judiciary presented shoulders to them and elected Prime Minster of Pakistan Yusuf Raza Gilani was disqualified. Mir Hasil Bizenjo said that democracy is still not accepted in the country. Silent martial law is working in the country. Political will have to decide now.
According to him, the silent martial law is worse than martial laws of Gen Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Pervez Musharraf. People are subjected to enforced disappearances. When people were abducted in Ayub’s era, everyone knew about the prisons where they were kept. When people were abducted in Zia’s government everyone knew about it. Unfortunately, no one knows now if someone is abducted during the silent martial law, he lamented.
The speakers discussed “adopting international human rights norms in the democratic law”. They highlighted issues regarding “constitutionalism and challenges the 18th Amendment and Imperialism”. The speakers threw light on “death penalty and deterrence. However, they were divided on the issue of death penalty. They showed their concern over the rise of religious fundamentalism in South Asia and overviewed challenges to the rights of religious minorities.
The bonded labour issue was highlighted and electoral reforms and the post-election 2018 situation were discussed. Legal frameworks in South Asia for the protection of refugees and migrants were also discussed at the conference. Legislative priorities for the new parliament and implementing women-friendly legislation in Pakistan were discussed. Sexual harassment against women at workplace was glanced. Among international guests were Michael Kirby, AC CMG (former Justice of the High Court of Australia and a renowned international human rights expert), Kirsty Birmelow QC (Chair of Human Rights Bar Committee, England & Wales), Annika Ben David (Sweden’s Ambassador at large for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law), Kamla Bhasin (writer, poet and activist, India), Nimalka Fernando (attorney at law and women’s rights activist, Sri Lanka), Peter Jacob (Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice).
The conference resolved that Pakistan should promulgate refugee laws. Pakistan needs a survey on internal migration data and research. Currently, the census data does not support such information. The conference also resolved that there was a requirement of jurisdictional clarity for urban governance which currently governed land management.
On the protection of human rights’ defenders, the conference resolved that the state should apply extra care in dealing with extrajudicial killings. There is a need for trials in the courts of law after foolproof investigation.
The conference stressed that it was necessary to provide security to protect judges and witnesses in sensitive cases. Initiatives must be taken to ban torture. Furthermore, Pakistan must implement legislation to criminalise forced disappearances. The government must adopt a Senate 2014 bill to prevent torture. The commission of missing persons must prosecute 153 identified officials responsible for forced disappearances.
On transgender rights, the conference demanded that the Transgender Act 2018 must be implemented in letter and spirit. It was recommended that a monitoring body for the implementation of the current protection laws for the transgender community be established. Broad-based measures must be taken by the government, media, civil society, essential service providers and education sector to increase awareness about transgender persons and their rights across the society.
The conference stressed that visa free policies must be introduced to reclaim solidarity among South Asian countries. The speakers said there was a need to revive SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and demanded calling the 18th summit immediately.
On gender equality, the conference resolved until women were treated equally by the law, gender- equality could not be achieved. This is related particularly to family laws and matrimonial property (hitherto an unknown concept in Pakistan). The speakers said women legislators in Pakistan worked harder. Despite that there is a glass ceiling for women in terms of decision making within the political party structures.
There is a need to change the way the media portrays women to transform mindsets and attitudes regarding the role and status of women in the society. The conference stressed that federalism must be based on cooperation between constitutionally autonomous provinces and empowerment of local governments. It was demanded that the role of the parliamentary committee in judicial appointments to superior courts must be revived.