FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 10

Unprecedented economic crisis and rights challenges

In the tumultuous year of 2023, Pakistan found itself in the grips of one of its most severe economic crises, marked by soaring levels of poverty, inflation, and unemployment. The Human Rights Watch’s extensive ‘World Report 2024’ delves into the multifaceted impact of these challenges on millions of people, raising concerns about the compromised rights to health, food, and an adequate standard of living.

The report underscores the role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exacerbating the situation, emphasizing austerity measures and subsidy removal without adequate compensatory actions, particularly affecting the nation’s vulnerable low-income groups. In 2023, Pakistan grappled with one of the most severe economic crises in its history, witnessing a surge in poverty, inflation, and unemployment, thereby jeopardizing the fundamental rights to health, food, and an adequate standard of living for millions, as outlined in a report by the Human Rights Watch.

The HRW conducted a comprehensive review of human rights practices in over 100 countries. The report underscored that the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) insistence on austerity and the removal of subsidies, without adequate compensatory measures, inflicted additional hardship on low-income groups in Pakistan. The nation remained exceptionally vulnerable to climate change, experiencing warming rates well above the global average, resulting in more frequent and intense extreme climate events, according to the report.

The HRW highlighted the increasing repression by governments in Asia, impacting human rights both locally and internationally. In contrast to Europe, Africa, and the Americas, Asia lacks a meaningful human rights charter or regional institution to safeguard human rights standards, the report added.

It revealed a climate of fear among journalists and civil society groups due to government threats and attacks on the media. Many resorted to self-censorship, and authorities pressured media outlets not to criticize state institutions or the judiciary.

Government intimidation, harassment, and surveillance of various groups, as well as impediments to the registration and functioning of international humanitarian and human rights groups under the pretext of regulating INGOs, were reported by NGOs.

The report also highlighted the pervasive issue of violence against women and girls throughout Pakistan, encompassing rape, murder, acid attacks, domestic violence, denial of education, sexual harassment at work, and child and forced marriage. Approximately 1,000 women were estimated to be victims of “honour killings” annually.

In Punjab alone, a local NGO reported 10,365 cases of violence against women in the first four months of 2023. The actual number is likely much higher due to reporting barriers, harmful social norms, and inadequate police responses. Pakistan’s conviction rate for rape was reported to be less than three percent.

A staggering number of children, both primary and secondary school-age, were out of school, with girls facing barriers such as the lack of schools, associated costs, child marriage, harmful child labour, and gender discrimination.

The report also highlighted the lack of awareness about mental health in Pakistani society, contributing to the abuse of individuals with psychosocial disabilities and mental health conditions. Transgender women, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, remained under attack.

Food insecurity affected nearly 37% of Pakistan’s 230 million people as of 2018, yet only 8.9 million families received assistance to mitigate the impact of rampant inflation.

In 2018, almost 37% of Pakistan’s massive population of 230 million people grappled with the harsh reality of food insecurity. This pressing issue was exacerbated by various factors, with rampant inflation playing a significant role in exacerbating the challenges faced by vulnerable communities. Despite the pervasive nature of food insecurity, only a fraction of those in need, specifically 8.9 million families, received any form of assistance.

The widespread prevalence of food insecurity underscores the deep-seated challenges facing a substantial portion of the Pakistani population. This predicament is not only a consequence of economic fluctuations but is also influenced by factors such as climate variability, inadequate infrastructure, and socio-economic disparities. The disparity between the high percentage of people affected and the relatively low number of families receiving assistance highlights the existing gaps in the distribution and accessibility of support mechanisms.

Efforts to address this issue must go beyond short-term assistance and focus on implementing sustainable solutions. This may involve a multi-faceted approach, including economic reforms to curb inflation, investments in agricultural resilience to mitigate climate-related risks, and the development of social safety nets to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources. By addressing the root causes of food insecurity and implementing comprehensive strategies, Pakistan can work towards creating a more resilient and food-secure future for its population.

In July, the European Union proposed extending Pakistan’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status by another four years, allowing Pakistan to benefit from trade preferences and access to the European market. Despite the domestic challenges, Pakistan and China strengthened their economic and political ties in 2023, with ongoing efforts on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, involving the construction of roads, railways, and energy pipelines.

Elaine Pearson, Asia director at HRW, emphasized the need for bold new approaches from rights-respecting governments and democratic institutions in response to the threats posed by abusive governments in Asia to human rights, both domestically and internationally.

As the report sheds light on the economic turmoil and human rights violations, it paints a stark picture of Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate change and the increasing repression faced by journalists and civil society. The lack of a robust human rights charter in Asia further compounds the challenges. Despite these grim realities, there are also glimpses of geopolitical engagements, such as the extension of Pakistan’s trade preferences by the European Union and the deepening economic ties with China. In the face of these complex dynamics, the call for bold new approaches to safeguard human rights remains, echoing the sentiment expressed by Elaine Pearson, the Asia director at HRW. The path forward demands concerted efforts from rights-respecting governments and democratic institutions to address the pressing human rights issues both within Pakistan and on the international stage.