The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was formed by the UN General Assembly on March 15, 2006 replacing UN Commission on Human Rights. Its main goal is to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms particularly of women and other marginalised groups across the globe. For this purpose it evaluates the human rights situation in the member states countries on the basis of verifiable information and suggests them to meet their obligation toward fulfilling human rights as per the international treaties.
The UNHRC has 47 members which are elected by the members of the General Assembly for a three years term on a regional group basis. No member can be elected for more than two consecutive terms. The region-wise break up of 47 members is as follows; 13 from Africa, 13 from Asia, six from Eastern Europe, eight from Latin America and the Caribbean and seven from the Western Europe. The headquarter of UNHRC is in Geneva, Switzerland. The UNHRC holds regular sessions three times a year — March, June and September.
The primary task of UNHRC is periodic stock taking of human rights record of all 193 UN member states which is called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This review is based on: 1) a report submitted by the state under review which is also called a national report; 2) reports submitted by human rights experts, national human rights institutions, academia and NGOs and; 3) report compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
From Pakistan, a number of civil society organisations submit reports on different themes including women, child, and minority and labour rights to name a few. The time allotted for examining country’s human rights situation is a three-and-a-half-hour. Every cycle of UPR is for almost four to five years in which all the 193 UN state members are reviewed and in each year some 40-48 members are covered. The three cycles of UPR for Pakistan were held in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2017.
The UPR is a state-driven unique mechanism which provides an excellent opportunity to all member state countries to scrutinise their human rights situation and improve it with the support of international community. The human rights situation in Pakistan is deteriorating with time as is evident by its UPR record.
In 2008, the first cycle of UPR, Pakistan received 51 recommendations. Out of which it accepted 43 and rejected eight. In 2012, the second cycle of UPR, the number of recommendations rose to 167. In third cycle of UPR in 2017, the recommendations it received by member states ballooned to 289. Out of it Pakistan accepted 168, noted 121 and rejected four recommendations. “Noted” means that the state will ponder over these recommendations later to determine their status as ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’.
The most ‘noted’ suggestions are about ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights which is aiming at the abolition of the death penalty and ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. It is very difficult in Pakistan to trace the whereabouts of missing persons.
At the moment there are 27 offences in Pakistan which are punishable by death. Being a member of UNHRC, Pakistan must review its decision regarding the reinstatement of death sentence keeping in view the shortcoming in its criminal justice system from the trial court to apex court. Some other ‘noted’ category of suggestions is about ratifying the protocols for protection of rights of women and religious minorities. According to HRCP, more than 12 million women in 2017 were not eligible to cast vote in the election 2018 for not having their CNICs. Similarly, it states that violence against women is on the rise as a number of cases go unreported.
Of course there are positive actions too which resulted with this periodic review like formation of National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) under an act of parliament in May 2012. It works with mandates to protect and promote the rights of citizens enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan and the international treaties ratified by Pakistan. But to this day this body could not be turned into an autonomous structure. It is working with insufficient financial resources and limited technical expertise. Though it has powers to investigate into complaints about human rights violations, it becomes toothless when it comes to enforced disappearances.
Similarly, it does not have the powers to take actions in line with its findings discovered in human rights violations cases. The NCHR can go a long way in improving the human rights record of the country provided it is capacitated and well-resourced in line with the international standards.
The need of human rights education at all tiers of society cannot be over emphasised. Our parliament must ensure to initiate debates to review the findings of the last UPR and chalk out an effective plan in light of the recommendations given by the member states. There must be a proper monitoring mechanism on periodic basis to track the progress. This exercise should not be limited to submission of a national report rather the state should educate the public at large on UPR and its mechanism with the engagement of media. And in this process all the key stakeholders must be taken on board. UPR must be taken as a continuous process that goes on through all the years and must not be limited to one time Geneva-based activity. With this approach we can build our soft and progressive image among the international community.
The fourth cycle of UPR for Pakistan is scheduled in 2022. The state must own this universal mechanism and continue to extend its cooperation at a much enhanced level. By then, Pakistan must come up with improved human rights record which can be witnessed by a minimum set of recommendations it receives from the member states.