We must stand firm against rising intolerance and build a future of dignity, security, justice & human rights for all.
—UN Secretary-General António Guterres
The year 2023 appears to be an especially difficult year to celebrate human rights day, but then again, which year is not difficult. Whether it is a violation against an individual or a mass atrocity in a war, the current state of the global human rights agenda should leave us all gravely concerned, but always vigilant. If anything, it is precisely in these turbulent times that our collective resolve must focus on reimagining — and ultimately realising — a future where dignity, security, justice and human rights are not just ideals, but realities for everyone. This International Human Rights Day, as we commemorate 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is incumbent upon all of us to reflect on the journey thus far and the road ahead, especially for nations like Pakistan.
On December 10, 1948, in the aftermath of World War II’s devastation, and three years of the adoption of the 1945 United Nations (UN) Charter, nations came together again to unanimously adopt a declaration with a promise to future generations: a world where the horrors of war and the pain of injustice would not be repeated. Building on the opening words of the UN Charter “…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person…to practice tolerance and live in peace with one another as good neighbours…”, the UDHR establishes range of fundamentals that form the bedrock of human dignity and freedom.
These rights include, but are not limited to, protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; the freedoms of opinion and expression, association and peaceful assembly; the right to form and join trade unions, and others. There is no quid-pro-quo on fundamental rights, nor are these rights considered privileges. Rather, they are recognised as inherent at birth, irrespective of nationality or allegiance.
It was clear, therefore, to the founders of the United Nations that any prospects for enduring peace and security could only be guaranteed when human rights were embraced and respected, with the primacy of individual human dignity at the centre of a universal framework all nations would observe.
Rather than being a static snapshot of the state of the world 75 years ago, the UDHR’s universal principles have inspired over seventy human rights treaties since 1948. Its relevance today is as significant as it was 75 years ago, perhaps even more so in a world where forces — large and small, individual and institutional — repeatedly and unashamedly stray away those very principles. That is why commemorations, like this 75th of the UHDR, are moment to pause and collectively reflect on how to get back on course.
In Pakistan, the UDHR has laid the foundation for an evolving human rights framework, particularly focusing on vulnerable groups such as women, children and persons with disabilities. As an original signatory to the UHDR in 1948 and subsequently signing seven core human rights treaties, and as a current member of the Human Rights Council, Pakistan has shown a clear political commitment to these universal values. These legally binding treaties place a critical responsibility on the state to ensure that the rights enshrined therein are not violated, and where violations do take place, adequate mechanisms for redressal of these violations are available. Recent legislative reforms, like the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act, the ICT Child Protection Act of 2018, and the Juvenile Justice System Act of 2018, all signify Pakistan’s efforts toward fulfilling its human rights obligations.
Yet, like others, Pakistan’s journey is far from complete. A look at equitable access to basic services and inclusion will reveal as much. UNDP’s 2021 National Human Development Report reveals alarming statistics: only 6% of Pakistan’s youth have access to higher education, while a staggering 29% have no access to education at all. Approximately 9.45 million children are not enrolled in primary schools despite Pakistan’s constitutional commitment to free and universal education. Gender disparity is another critical issue, affecting 39% of young people. The digital divide among women and men further exacerbates these inequalities, with just 50% of women owning a mobile phone compared to 81% of men. This ratio is equivalent to 22 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone. Women in Pakistan are 49% less likely to use mobile internet than men, which translates into 12 million fewer women than men using mobile internet. This means women and girls in Pakistan face significantly disproportionate limitation in their ability to benefit from the opportunities provided by digital transformation. Furthermore, a mere 4% of the country’s youth are actively seeking employment and 57% remaining disconnected from employment opportunities.
Any reflection on Human Rights and UDHR must also acknowledge the need to continuously advocate for expanding, not shrinking, civic space. Protected under Article 17 of Pakistan’s Constitution, this space is courageously filled with national human rights institutions and commissions, with civil society organisations and an array of individual human rights defenders and champions fighting for women and children, for environmental justice, for labourers, for the transgender community, for access to information and freedom of expression, for persons with disabilities, for religious tolerance and more. International Human Rights Day is a potent reminder of the crucial significance of and need for committed protection of the civil society by the state under its national and international human rights obligations.
These challenges underscore the urgent need for renewed focus and action. As Pakistan approaches its General Election in 2024, it is an opportune moment to press upon leaders and stakeholders the importance of reinvigorating Pakistan’s commitments enshrined in the UDHR. This is not just a call for policy change but a call to embrace the UDHR as a living document that underpins the achievement of the Pakistan’s Sustainable Development.
Seventy-five years ago, the world came together to declare that human dignity, freedom and justice are universal, and non-negotiable. Today, as we face cascading challenges, re-committing to the UHDR offers a clear pathway that translates charters and treaties to realities.
Dr. Samuel Rizk
Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2023