25 Oct 2022
The fourth annual Asma Jahangir Conference 2022 formally launched on the 22nd of October 2022. The two-day event was jointly organized by the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell (AGHS), the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan (SCBAP) and the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), with the support of the European Delegation to Pakistan, the Embassy of Sweden, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Embassy of Spain and the Canadian High Commission.
At the inaugural ceremony, in which Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan Justice Qazi Faez Isa honoured the stage as chief guest, the conference initiated with the note that the solution to the constitutional crisis in Pakistan and South Asia is to ensure constitutional supremacy, rule of law, equality before law, and respect for the will of the people.
In the first session titled ‘Reconstruction and Rehabilitation – Post Floods in Pakistan’, the house resolved that due to disaster management and rehabilitation efforts taking precedence following the devastating floods in Pakistan, the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has effectively become a hindrance as it bars the government from spending development funds during the second and third quarters of the year. The panel reiterated Pakistan’s demand for climate reparations, and urged the nation to continue donating especially for the coming winter months.
In the session ‘The Need for Constitutional Courts’, the panelists agreed that urgent and immediate judicial reforms are needed to make the judiciary more accountable, and that the process of judicial appointments needs to be changed to make it more democratic, inclusive and transparent. They further held that the judiciary needs to set up rules of exercising its suo motu jurisdiction and use it only in limited, clearly defined circumstances.
In the session ‘Disenfranchisement in Balochistan and the Need for Political Dialogue’, the panel resolved that the people of Balochistan require the state to abandon the policies in place since independence in 1947. Disenfranchisement, repression, deprivation of natural resources, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings run the risk of making separatists a self-fulfilling prophecy. Political dialogue with insurgents and all political forces in Balochistan, not armed violence, is the only way forward to ending the crisis in the province.
In the session ‘Constitutional Duties of a Speaker’, the house speakers held that where the rule of law is a serious concern for Pakistan, Articles 67, 68 and 69 of the Constitution of Pakistan need to be kept in consideration. The Speaker needs to become a non-controversial figure once again, for which practical steps need to be taken. However, the house lamented that the courts have decided on the rulings of the Speaker and the sovereignty of the Parliament.
In the session titled ‘Afghan Women and Girls Fighting for Survival: The Way Forward?’, the panelists resolved that dialogue might convince the Afghan Taliban that a sustainable peace will remain elusive so long as the rights of half the population – women and girls – are continually violated. They also urged the international community to refuse to recognize the Taliban’s government in Afghanistan so long as it lacks domestic legitimacy.
In the session ‘Food Insecurity and Threat to Livelihoods – How can Pakistan Learn from the Sri Lankan Experience?’, the house observed that immediate manmade decisions have escalated the crisis. Therefore, the first responsibility of the government is to subsidize food, especially staples, in order to circumvent consistent price fluctuations. The panel held that there is an immediate need for an economic shift in Pakistan in order to tackle food insecurity and ensure proper distribution of food.
In the session titled ‘Climate Change and Flooding in Pakistan’, the panel called for establishing a local government as a third tier within the government, as a first step in local adaptation plans. They held that water bodies should have legal persons’ rights to reduce violations such as encroachments, pollution and waste dumping. The house further stated that agricultural land should not be sacrificed for private housing schemes. Moreover, for Gilgit-Baltistan, hydroelectric and other renewable energy projects should be created following the natural demographic of the land and with the involvement of the region’s people. The house also stated that climate change be made a part of school curriculums, starting at the primary level.
In the session ‘School Curriculum and Communalism in India and Pakistan’, the speakers resolved that students should be allowed to grow up in a free environment, and to accept the history and geography of the Subcontinent. Furthermore, people need to rise against the menace of hate against minorities.
In the session ‘Transgender Rights Law Under Threat and the Plight of the Community in Pakistan’, the panel held that the transgender community is entitled to all rights available to Pakistani citizens, including equality and the protection against discrimination. They held that scientific methods, including WHO guidelines, can be used to better understand gender identity and clarify any confusion about who transgender people are. The speaker further stated that there should be broad-based consultations to recommend improvements to the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, on the basis of the Constitution and Shariah.
In the session titled ‘Media under Siege in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan’, the speakers stated that the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) must be abolished. They urged state leaders to accept that criticism is not something to suppress, but to be welcomed as a healthy sign of a vibrant democracy. The panel stated that there should be commitment to end impunity at the highest level, as the South Asia region is known to be hostile to dissent and has lost many journalists to state terror. Furthermore, collective trolling must be curbed because it is being used as a form of censorship, and that solidarity among journalists across South Asia to stand in full support of journalists who are harassed, arrested or killed is the need of the hour.
In the session ‘Mainstreaming Radicalism: Legitimizing Extremists – Impact on Minorities’, the house resolved that the disenfranchisement of the scheduled castes and forced religious conversions must stop. They held that the minimum age of marriage should be 18, and proposed that it should also be the minimum age for free will conversion. The panel also resolved that the Evacuee Property Trust Board (EPTB) must be devolved as per the 18th Amendment, and that it should be headed by a member of the minority community.
In the session ‘Population, Family Planning and Women’s Reproductive Issues’, the panel recommended that there must be female enumerators to collect census data so that women, girls and transgender persons are counted and therefore fully represented. Multiple stakeholders, including lawyers, should play a role in advocacy of and communication efforts to promote family planning. The house also urged the government to promote and develop girls’ education.
In the session titled ‘Matrimonial Property Rights in Pakistan’, the speakers stated that the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) has held that CEDAW is binding, and that 2019 ruling by the high court held that nonfinancial contribution of women in a marriage can be compensated at the time of divorce, even in cases of khula. As such, Pakistan should take these developments as a cue to take the next step forward in recognition of matrimonial property as a legal right. The house called for Pakistan to follow in the steps of other Islamic countries and pass legislation for the protection of women in marriage and after divorce. The panel also held that Islamic law needs a progressive interpretation inlight of the increasing role of women in society.
In the session ‘Separation of Powers: The Executive, the Parliament, the Judiciary’, it was resolved that judges must respect the written word of the Constitution and not overwrite or rewrite the same on the pretext of interpretation or otherwise. Furthermore, Parliamentarians must recognise their independent legislative responsibilities and duty to hold the government responsible, and should not be content with being participants in a mere debating club. The house also held that elected civilian governments are the only legitimate representatives of the people and must not surrender their duty and power to frame policy and take administrative decisions to any unelected body or institution.
In the session ‘Making Deals with the Afghan Taliban and its Fallout’, the panel resolved that the Afghan and Pakistani civil society must work together for peace between the two countries. They further held that Talibanization does not end at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s border, and therefore the Pashtun’s struggle against Talibanization should be given due support.
In the session ‘Political Economy of Land Acquisition’, the house resolved that no acquisition for any housing venture which is not aimed at providing shelter to the marginalized and to low income communities should be permitted. As Pakistan is already a food stressed country, the Land Acquisition Act must forbid or severely restrict land acquisition in cases where it would include multi-crop irrigated areas. The panel also further resolved that the process of land acquisition under the Act must be amended to include compulsory social and environment impact studies for the land, and must be conducted before any acquisition is made. The government must also compensate not only land owners, but also rehabilitate and resettle the people who stand to lose their livelihood from the acquisition of the land.
In the session ‘Uniform Legislation for Defining the Age of a Child’, the panelists agreed on the need to settle a common age of the child which may require a constitutional amendment. This is critical to iron out contradictions in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and for age of marriage, employment and for rights under labour laws and protection from hazardous work. The age must not discriminate between boys and girls (especially for marriage) and should be uniform in all provinces. The speakers also proposed a follow up meeting of commissions of human rights, women and children be held in Islamabad to work out detailed methods and lobby for the constituency of children which is neglected in parliament. Over-reliance on medicine and procedures like ossification must end, and the registration of births must be made imperative. They held that a rights based approach to consent is needed rather than a fixation on medical age only.
In the session ‘Democracy and Human Rights in South Asia: Current Challenges and Future Opportunities’, the house stated that all attempts at moving away from the concept of ‘unity and diversity’ must be resisted, and all links between human rights and democracy must be strengthened. Small and strong movements that have sustained themselves against the erosion of human rights across the border – like the labour and farmers’ movement – must unify.
In the session ‘Criminal Justice Response to Overcrowding in Prisons’, the house resolved that the government must publish and make publicly available its data on prison populations. Prisons should accommodate the needs of inmates with special needs, like addicts, mentally ill individuals, female juveniles, etc. There should be a focus on preventing crimes and on alternatives to detention and incarceration including diversion and discharge. The panel also further stated that decriminalization can reduce unnecessary detention, and that laws on child diversion should be fully implemented.