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Government must cease attempts to control civil liberties: HRCP

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LAHORE: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said in a statement to the Press by it’s chairperson Ms. Hina Jilani that it strongly opposes the recent slew of hastily passed legislation, “none of which has undergone critical deliberation even at the parliamentary level, much less public debate.”

The statement read as follows: Most recently, the amended Official Secrets Act 1923, which HRCP deems draconian in scope, gives intelligence agencies sweeping powers to enter and search any person or place without a warrant if they suspect an offence has been committed under the act—at the very least, this violates people’s right to privacy under Article 14 of the Constitution.

Moreover, by broadening certain definitions, the act may be used to indiscriminately charge people who have no intent of committing an offence under the act. In making it a crime to ‘incite, conspire, attempt, aid or abet the commission of an offence under the act’, the amendments also broaden the scope for targeting dissidents and political rivals in the future.

Previously, the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act 2023—passed by the Senate and National Assembly at breakneck speed in July—has criminalized defamation of the armed forces, including online. In so doing, it violates the right to freedom of expression of retired military personnel under Article 19 as well as their right to participate in public life under Article 17.

Additionally, the bill sanctions the armed forces’ engagement in ‘national development and advancement of national or strategic interest’. HRCP deplores this attempt to seek legislative approval for military involvement in areas to which it has no moral or political claim.

In criminalizing criticism of Parliament, the Contempt of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) Bill 2023, passed earlier in July, not only violates people’s constitutional right to freedom of expression under Article 19, but also makes it harder to hold elected representatives accountable, while contravening people’s right to participatory governance.

Moreover, allowing the envisaged contempt committee to award punishment violates the trichotomy of powers because judicial power cannot be exercised by the legislature, nor should legislators be judges in their own cause. While HRCP upholds the concept of parliamentary supremacy, the content of the law — which is ambiguous and over-broad — and the manner in which it was passed, are both cause for concern.

Finally, the Personal Data Protection Bill and E-Safety Bill, which were approved by the federal cabinet in July without any sign of deliberation or debate, are cause for great concern. We support the reservations of digital rights activists who have pointed out that these bills do not meet international standards of data privacy and will curtail rather than protect digital rights.

The government would do well to remember that its legitimacy and authority spring from the quality of its governance and its ability to respect, protect and fulfil citizens’ fundamental rights.

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