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Ensuring independent judiciary key challenge for Pakistan, says UN rights chief

Ensuring independent judiciary key challenge for Pakistan, says UN rights chief

Louise Arbour, UN  High Commissioner for Human Rights
Establishing an independent judiciary and protecting human rights while ensuring national security are among the major challenges currently facing Pakistan, the UN human rights chief said today, adding that she was confident the country has both the resources and resilience to overcome them.

“I am conscious this is an incredibly challenging period of Pakistan’s history, as it attempts to manage its transition to democracy, and balance and stabilize its key state institutions, while simultaneously grappling with global economic difficulties and standing on the front line in the global fight against terrorism,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said following a three-day visit.

During the trip – her last before stepping down at the end of the month as the UN’s top human rights official – Ms. Arbour met with the President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Law and Justice, as well as with representatives of civil society, UN agencies and the diplomatic community.

Stressing that an independent judiciary is fundamental to a functioning democracy, she noted that “the current judicial crisis in Pakistan, centred on the composition of the Supreme Court, risks paralyzing the new government’s ability to address other critical policy challenges.”

She urged the parties to find a solution to the issue as soon as possible. “However, in the process of restoring the Supreme Court judges it will be important not to compromise in any way the Court’s long term independence and remedial powers,” she cautioned.

In addition, she encouraged the Government to drop all outstanding charges against those human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and political activists who were detained during the state of emergency declared last November.

The High Commissioner also stressed the responsibility of the Government to ensure the protection of civilians as it pursues various strategies to deal with security threats. “On the one hand, we have seen human rights violations in the context of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, including hundreds of unresolved cases of people disappearing, apparently not of their own free will,” she noted.

“On the other hand, peace deals with some militant groups have undermined state authority in the areas controlled by the militants, leaving local people vulnerable to a range of very serious human rights abuses ranging from social restrictions to attacks on minorities and extra-judicial killings,” she added, noting that women and girls are particularly affected.

In the midst of these challenges, Ms. Arbour said she was deeply impressed by the “historic” mobilization of Pakistan’s civil society – including the lawyers’ movement, human rights activists, political parties and trade unions – in defense of democracy and the rule of law. “This movement has had a transformative effect on people’s consciousness of their human rights and their ability to affect change.”

In addition, she hoped the country’s “vibrant and diverse” media will continue to play an important role in holding the government accountable to the people. “Taken together, the courage and commitment shown by all these actors give me hope that the country has both the internal resources and resilience to surmount the many major challenges that lie ahead,” she stated.

The High Commissioner was also encouraged by the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that he intends to push for thousands of death sentences to be commuted. She has urged the Government to join the global movement towards a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and, as a first step, to considerably reduce the number of offenses for which capital punishment can be imposed in Pakistan.