ISLAMABAD  -    The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on Thursday said that the political polarisation has overshadowed the human rights issues at all level in the country.

Concluding its national conference on human rights and democratic participation, the HRCP said that this is an opportune time to re-energise the human rights discourse, given that intense political polarisation has overshadowed the human rights enterprise at all levels.’

The conference examined crucial questions relating to freedom of expression, assembly and association, federalism, freedom of religion and belief, and rule of law and constitutionalism. Uzma Noorani, HRCP Co-Chair, said that it was a critical time for human rights in Pakistan and the HRCP sought to uphold the ethos of its co-founder Asma Jahangir.

HRCP Honorary Spokesperson I.A.Rehman said that it was the right of the people of Pakistan to be governed democratically and that political parties needed to come together to work on a new charter of democracy. Given the growing climate of intimidation and self-censorship in which the media presently operates, the first panel – titled ‘Stifling crucial voices of dissent’ – explored why freedom of expression and freedom of the press is integral to monitoring and protecting human rights especially with a view to shaping public opinion and rights-based policy.

The second panel comprising Malik Naseer Shahwani of the Balochistan National Party (Mengal), Maryam Bibi, founder and chief executive of Khwendo Kor, lawyer and human rights activist Jibran Nasir, Awami Workers Party member Alia Amirali and Mohammad Tahseen, Director of the South Asia Partnership examined why enabling freedom of assembly and association is perceived as threatening.

The conference also raised important issues relating to the right to participatory democracy and the challenges to federalism. The third panel looked at Pakistan’s identity as a federation, and the ability and will to build a pluralist democracy as being key to the integrity of the state.

The fourth panel looked at how the ‘spectre of extremism’ poses a threat to human rights and democratic participation. Panelists looked at how growing conservatism has rapidly eroded away the right to freedom of religion and belief, and what the state and civil society must do to counter the increasing ‘acceptability’ of extremist thought and practice.

The final panel, on safeguarding the rule of law and constitutionalism, examined why impunity remains an obstacle to accountability, just law-making, open government and accessible dispute resolution. Justice (Retd) Nasira Iqbal, former Justice of the Lahore High Court, Amjad Hussain, former president of the Gilgit-Baltistan High Court Bar Association, Dr Abid Saqi, former president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, Fatima Bokhari, human rights lawyer and chief executive of Musawi, Sara Malkani, human rights lawyer and Advocacy Advisor Asia, Centre for Reproductive Rights, and Habib Tahir, advocate of the Supreme Court and vice-chair of HRCP’s Balochistan chapter spoke as part of the panel.

Concluding the session, senior advocate and HRCP Council Member Hina Jilani said that it was important to sustain the conversation on human rights and that the conference sought to ‘incite’ people to action on this front. The HRCP said that it hopes this conference will lead to agreement on the essential requirements for legislative and institutional reform, policy formulations and implementation plans to instate fuller respect for human rights.