For an activist like Sana Ahmed, advocating on human rights issues in Pakistan seems like an uphill battle. The programme officer at Blue Veins—a Peshawar-based organisation that works on women’s and transgender rights—believes there is still a lot of work to be done, although there have already been major improvements in the country.
In 2016, Blue Veins joined a working group in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa set up by DRI Pakistan to lead meetings with Parliamentarians to monitor and report human rights violations, as well as advocate for policy changes on human rights.
“Since then, we have made a lot of progress. With DRI’s support, we successfully passed the first resolution on transgender voting rights in the province,” she said.
Since DRI opened its office in Islamabad in 2010, human rights have been one of its main areas of focus. Muhammad Rafique, DRI Pakistan’s Senior Human Rights and Advocacy Expert, described the human rights situation in a country with more than 220 million populations as complex.
Pakistan entered into a GSP+ trade scheme with the European Union in 2014, a beneficial trade agreement in exchange for the country’s respect of international conventions on human rights and labour standards. During the first few years, Pakistan followed through with many of the compliance commitments and established its first national human rights commission in 2016.
With this in mind, DRI Pakistan was able to provide a platform to bring together the government, business actors, and civil society organisations to cooperate together and take actions towards better compliance.
Shamsher Shams, Project Coordinator at The Awakening, a Pakistani organisation dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights, said that they have managed to raise awareness about the GSP+ status and advocate for the government to comply with many of the international human rights conventions with the help of programmes organised by DRI Pakistan.
Assisting provincial governments in protecting human rights
In 2019, DRI Pakistan along with local civil society organisations assisted the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in developing a human rights action plan. The province, which borders Afghanistan, has long been undermined by ongoing armed conflict between Pakistan and Islamist militant groups, taking a toll on human rights.
Working with local activists and civil society, they assessed the human rights situation in the area and turned policy into a concrete action plan. The plan was officially launched in 2020.
“The Human Rights Action Plan is a milestone achievement of the provincial government and DRI’s engagement with the human rights bodies and women parliamentary caucus was extremely helpful,” said Maliha Ali Asghar Khan, Chairperson of the Woman Parliamentary Caucus and member of the Standing Committee on Law, Parliamentary Affairs, and Human Rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Malik Maqsood, Deputy Director at the Directorate General of Human Rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is convinced that the action plan will help the implementation of the province’s human rights policy in the future.
“It is very beneficial, and I think we can take this work to the local level to create an even bigger impact in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” he added.
DRI Pakistan also worked with the provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh to provide technical support to human rights bodies and organise workshops to help local governments with compliance to international human rights standards.
Progress and setbacks on human rights
While the adoption of concrete action plans is an important step forward in protecting human rights, there is still much room for improvement, especially for organisations like The Awakening that work on human rights advocacy. “There are policies that limit the freedom of expression, association and assembly for civil society organisations. The government needs to address this issue,” Shamsher said.
While problems with human rights persist, especially on women’s and minority rights and freedom of expression and opinion, the country has made commendable progress in establishing better human rights policies and action plans, according to Rafique.
“Pakistan signed seven human rights treaties and eight labour rights treaties. They also established treaty implementation at the provincial and national level,” he said.
On 28 September this year, the government launched a National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights, ensuring better protection of human rights in the business sector.
DRI Pakistan will continue its work on human rights and assist the local governments it partnered with before to implement this new action plan.
“We still have a lot of work to do, and there are some setbacks on human rights issues. But we are making progress,” Rafique concluded.