LAHORE - The International Day of Democracy was observed here in the city on Friday.

On this occasion, members of the Civil Society Working Group (CSWP) urged the government to ensure independent functioning of human rights institutions. “The government is squeezing the democratic spaces available to the civil society and undermining the powers of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). The provincial governments must devolve the political, administrative and financial powers to the local governments per constitution.”

These views were expressed by the members of the Civil Society Working Group (CSWP) on GSP+ at a press conference, organised in connection with the International Democracy Day at the Lahore Press Club on Friday.

Those who spoke on the occasion included Irfan Mufti, Bushra Khaliq, Tanveer Jahan, Abdul Khaliq and Ayyaz Hussain. A large number of human rights activists was present.

The speakers said that the NCHR was an important institution set up under the act of the parliament that gives the Commission broader mandate to promote and protect human rights as provided in the Constitution and international human rights treaties ratified by Pakistan.

Various UN committees had also recommended the Pakistan government to strengthen the independence of NCHR. They said the Federal Ministry of Human Rights had attempted to take administrative control of the NCHR through amendments to Ministry’s Rule of Business in violation of the National Commission for Human Rights Act 2012. The speakers said today is International Democracy Day and highlighted the need to revisit the democratic credentials of the country.

Human Capital Report 2016 ranks Pakistan 118 among 130 countries.

Another ranking known as Global Gender Gap Index also ranks Pakistan second from the bottom, leaving even Sub-Sahara African countries behind. The index tracks women’s progress in the areas of education, health services, economic opportunities and political representation.

They demanded freedom of expression in the country and said the federal government needed to urgently enact a special law on safety of journalists to outline legal mechanisms for their protection after consultations with stakeholders.

Since law and order is a provincial subject and media practitioners are spread across the country, the four provinces also need to enact provincial versions of journalists' safety laws providing better accessible mechanisms at the local level.

Media houses across the country need to draft and adopt staff security policies and safety protocols. The Prevention of Electronic Cybercrime Act (PECA), enacted in 2016, urgently needs to be revisited to de-criminalise freedom of expression online, rationalise user data retention guidelines and add provisions to allow for oversight and transparency in its implementation mechanisms.

The authorities should take all appropriate measures to ensure that people, including women, children and those from marginalised communities, are allowed to exercise their right to peaceful assembly.

The provincial government must devolve political, administrative, and financial powers and authority to the local governments per constitution. Special steps need to be taken to bridge the serious gender-gap in the electoral rolls. Well-organized democratic political parties are vital for a functional democracy; they must be provided a conducive environment to perform their role effectively.