Why are Sanitation Workers in Pakistan Killing themselves? HRCP Explains the Suicides

A society is known by whether or not it is able to protect its weakest citizens. In the last few months there has been a steady rise in suicide attempts by sanitation workers in Pakistan.

These workers are “at the lowest tier of the sanitation services. They maintain, inspect, clean and unclog sewers and, when needed, descend via manholes into fecal sludge, without protection equipment or tools. They do not have a voice. There is no union or federation of sanitation workers — unlike in other countries — to let us hear their collective voice. We only know that the majority of these workers belong to a minority community, discriminated against and shunned by the majority. We come to know of their existence when they suffer fatal accidents in the line of duty, or when they are treated inhumanly in the most unpardonable manner like an injured worker from Umerkot was reportedly treated in hospital.”

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) “arbitrary layoffs and the non-payment of wages have continued for months. This is taking a brutal toll on a section of the workforce that is often considered ‘invisible’, despite providing vital labour.”

HRCP condemned “the indifference of the federal and provincial governments, and of municipal corporations, to such workers who consistently face hazardous working conditions. The Commission aims to work closely with sanitation workers’ associations across the country and demands that their grievances are heard and redressed fairly and promptly. Sanitation work demands the same dignity and welfare benefits as any other occupation.”

HRCP: Where is the sovereignty of Pakistan’s citizens?

If Pakistan seeks to make progress towards becoming a democracy, one of the key issues that need to be tackled are its human rights record. At a recent seminar, held by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a high-profile panel of human rights defenders discussed constitutionalism and human rights.

The panel “included HRCP Honorary Spokesperson I. A. Rehman; HRCP Secretary-General Harris Khalique; HRCP Council member and Supreme Court advocate Hina Jilani; Secretary-General of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Nasir Zaidi; former director of the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services, Zafarullah Khan; former Senators Afrasiab Khattak, Farhatullah Babar and Taj Haider; Justice Shakeel Baloch; senior journalists Muhammad Ziauddin, Hamid Mir and Asma Shirazi; Secretary-General of the Supreme Court Bar Association Shamim Malik; and political activist Dr Aasim Sajjad Akhtar. The seminar was attended by a cross section of society.”

The HRCP “resolution adopted by the panel urged the political leadership to ensure the supremacy of parliament, rule of law, and the people’s fundamental freedoms and rights. It stated that elected representatives should ensure that the system of governance rests on established laws and constitutional norms, instead of ordinances. The resolution also noted how political engineering by undemocratic forces had damaged the democratic process and encouraged selective accountability. The actions of law enforcement agencies, primarily intelligence agencies, should be brought within the ambit of the law through a strong, independent parliamentary oversight mechanism. As per the resolution, the policing duties in the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa must be handed over to civilian law enforcement institutions. The insidious practice of running internment centres in KP must also cease.”

HRCP also urged “the government to criminalise enforced disappearances in accordance with the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, and let the public know the outcome of the proceedings at the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. Various speeches reiterated that Pakistan’s youth, which has been kept alienated for decades and taken to the streets to claim their rights, must be heeded, not vilified in the form of criminal cases. Human rights defenders and journalists must be allowed to do their jobs and to criticise where criticism is called for. If Pakistan is to progress as a democratic country, the state must form empowered, autonomous local bodies in all federating units of the country. It must restore people’s faith in the judiciary by making it clear that those who abrogate the Constitution will be held accountable. Indeed, HRCP hopes the apex court will overturn the recent regressive judgment of the Lahore High Court. The state must also protect provincial autonomy under the Eighteenth Amendment and the National Finance Commission Award. Provincial autonomy is a democratic right of Pakistan’s federating units.”

Pakistan’s Politicians Vote to Recognize ‘Divine Right’ of Army Chiefs

On Tuesday, January 7, 2020, the National Assembly of Pakistan approved a bill granting legal cover to a three-year extension in service to current Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, ending what some have referred to as “stand-off between the nation’s strong military and the judiciary.” The bill will become a law once it is approved by the Senate, the upper house. What was predictable was how the two main opposition parties, both Pakistan People’s Party, co-headed by former president Asif Ali Zardari, and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of ex-premier Nawaz Sharif, supported this move by Imran Khan’s led government.

Two days earlier, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had expressed deep concern “at Parliament’s attempt to hastily introduce legislation that will affect the organisation of the military through the recently tabled Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act 2020, the Pakistan Navy (Amendment) Act and the Pakistan Airforce (Amendment) Act. In the interest of preserving the sanctity of democratic rule, decisions concerning the rules and regulations that govern the tenure and appointment of military chiefs must not be made rashly. The undue haste in which this has occurred has worrying implications for the way in which democratic decisions are made in the future. Building institutions that outlast individuals is paramount to strengthening Pakistan’s ability to protect citizens’ fundamental rights. The recently tabled laws are a matter of public interest and the people’s elected representatives have a duty to legislate with responsibility and not on an ad hoc basis. This is critical to the spirit of the Constitution.”

However, even the Senate Standing committee on Defense approved the legislations and the bills will be approved by the Senate tomorrow.

The only parliamentarians who opposed the bills were those from Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-i-Islami and representatives from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). In a tweet, a North Waziristan MNA Mohsin Dawar said prior to walking out of the National Assembly, they had voted against the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2020. “This parliament acted like a rubber stamp. Speaker didn’t even allow the few dissenting voices to make their case. This is one of the darkest days in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. It will take a long time to recover from this.”

Nankana Incident Shows Limits of Pakistan’s Khalistan Agenda

Pakistan has often been described as one of the worst offenders of religious freedom and minority rights. While Prime Minister Imran Khan and his advisers may claim things have improved this Friday January 3’s events in Nankana Sahib, one of the holiest shrines of the Sikh community, show how far Pakistan has still left to go. Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, also known as the Gurdwara Janam Asthan, is the site where the first Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak, was born and is regarded as one of the holiest sites in the religion.  

In August 2019, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed in the Nankana police station against six people who were accused of abducting and forcibly converting a Sikh woman, Jagjit Kaur. On Friday scores of protesters staged a sit-in outside the Nankhana Sahib Gurdwara, led by the family of the man accused of the abduction and conversion, Ehsan.

Many Pakistani activists streamed videos of the sit in and the tense situation at the gurdwara.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also issued a statement on twitter condemning the incident and asking the government to protect the Gurdwara.

In the end the protesters dispersed only after obtaining the release of the arrested person.

General Bajwa’s Extension Drama Continues

In the midst of economic crises and international turmoil, Army Chief General Bajwa’s extension continues to occupy primetime on Pakistani media and in a predictable development the government and the opposition will work together to ensure that the COAS gets his extension.

In August 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan had extended Gen Bajwa’s tenure for three years through a notification, but on November 26, 2019 – three days before Gen Bajwa was due to retire – the Supreme Court under then Chief Justice Khosa suspended the order. Two days later the apex court announced that Bajwa would remain the COAS for another six months during which the parliament would legislate on the army chief’s extension/reappointment.

In the wake of this order, the PTI government decided to introduce an amendment bill in parliament after building a consensus with major opposition parties – PMLN and PPP – on the matter.

As Dawn reports “The government needs the support of opposition parties to make

the amendments as any amendment to the Constitution needs to be approved by at least two-thirds of the membership of each House — the National Assembly and Senate. “We are hopeful that the bill seeking amendments in the army act, which requires a simple majority, will be passed from both houses unanimously on Friday,” said PTI MNA Malik Amir Dogar. He said that under a provision, the maximum age limit of the army, navy and air force chiefs and joint chief of staff committee will be 64 years in case they are given an extension in their tenures.”

The new laws“will fix 64 years as the maximum age limit of the three services chiefs — chief of army staff, chief of air staff and chief of naval staff — and the chairman of the joint chief of staff committee, with the prime minister having the prerogative to give an extension to any of them in future after completion of their normal tenure at the age of 60 years and the president having the power to give the final nod.”

Interestingly, “speaking to reporters after the NA session, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said his party will support the legislation if it is done through the parliamentary rules and regulations. He said the bills will first be sent to the National Assembly Standing Committee on Defence and the matter will be discussed in the House, adding that PML-N had not taken the opposition into confidence before offering the government their unconditional support on the legislation. “I think this should have not happened in this way. It is the responsibility of the leader of the opposition to unite the opposition and maintain consensus among ranks.”

However, “However, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief Sirajul Haq tweeted on Friday evening

that his party “will not support” the Army Act amendment bill. JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, while talking to media in Islamabad, also said his party will “thoroughly resist” the amendment bill because it cannot give the right to legislate to a National Assembly “that was formed after stealing the people’s mandate”.”