NEW YORK - An international human rights watchdog Friday urged Pakistan’s new government to ‘urgently’ address serious human rights abuses that include attacks on religious minorities, enforced disappearances – especially in Balochistan - and impunity for abusive militant groups.

In a letter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif outlining “10 Steps to Improve Human Rights,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) referred to the historic transition of power in May and said that PM Nawaz has an important opportunity to create a rights-respecting government that abides by the rule of law and restores the public’s faith in democratic institutions.

“Pakistan has made impressive gains in very challenging circumstances since democracy was restored in 2008,” HRW Pakistan Director Ali Dayan Hasan said in a statement. “But unless the government calls a halt to serious human rights abuses, these gains may slip away.”

Since 2012, well over 650 Shias have been killed in targeted attacks across Pakistan, the majority from the Hazara community in Balochistan province, HRW said, adding that Sunni militant groups, such as the ostensibly banned Lashkar-e Jhangvi, operate with widespread impunity across Pakistan. The government should apprehend and prosecute those responsible for attacks on the Shia and other groups at risk, Hasan stressed.

“Militant attacks on the Shia have occurred with increasing ferocity while the security forces have looked on helplessly,” Hasan said. “Whether the failure to hold and deter attackers is a function of incompetence or complicity by elements of the security forces, the government has a responsibility to reverse this state of affairs.”

The Human Rights Watch said it has recorded repeated enforced disappearances and killings of suspected Baloch militants and opposition activists by the military, intelligence agencies, and the paramilitary Frontier Corps. Baloch nationalists and other militant groups also stepped up attacks on non-Baloch civilians in 2012 and 2013.

“Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should take all necessary measures to end enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detentions in Balochistan,” Hasan said. “But for that to happen the government should fully investigate and prosecute as appropriate everyone, regardless of position or rank, who orders or commits abuses.”

Prime Minister Nawaz should redouble efforts to protect religious minorities, and imposing a moratorium on the use of Section 295-C, the blasphemy law, would be a first step, the rights group said. The government should also enact legislation against domestic violence and measures to improve investigation and prosecution of ‘honour’ killings and acid attacks, which target women. The government also needs to provide greater protection for journalists, who work in a climate of fear that impedes coverage of the state security forces and militant groups.

To cement in place mechanisms to protect human rights and to make human rights a priority in government policymaking, the government should promptly constitute the National Human Rights Commission, for which legislation has already been enacted.

“There are many challenges to making Pakistan a rights-respecting democracy and there are no quick fixes,” Hasan said. “But for the development of Pakistan, it is essential for the government to take concrete steps to protect fundamental civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights as part of an active human rights agenda.”