SAARC states urged to attend to people’s rights and needs

Press Release, July 31


Lahore: While welcoming the SAARC Summit in Colombo (August 2-3, 2008), the South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional body of human rights activists, has commended the SAARC governments’ decision to address people’s daily concerns – food, water, energy and environment, and urged the member states to ensure social justice by ensuring the promotion of people’s fundamental rights.


In a statement issued by the SAHR chairperson and co-chairperson, Mr. I.K. Gujral (India) and Dr. Hameeda Hossain (Bangladesh), the organization drew SAARC members’ attention to several grave situations in the region. It said:


The Afghans have repeatedly called for accountability for those responsible for serious human rights abuses. There can be no sustainable peace and security in Afghanistan without respect for the rule of law. In many parts of the country, warlords and their militias have perpetrated human rights abuses.


In Bangladesh, new counter terrorism laws prescribing the death penalty violate fundamental freedoms and rights to a fair trial. The Election Commission has announced a schedule of elections: to local representative institutions and to Parliament between August and December. It has recommended amendments to the electoral framework to make the parties more accountable and to limit the chances of corruption and use of arms. SAHR welcomes the measures taken to ensure accountability and calls upon the Government to lift the state of emergency so that elections are held in a free environment.


While SAHR applauds the fact that many Bhutanese participated in the elections in April, the situation concerning the refugees still remains bleak and the resettlement offer looks like a ruse to undercut the goal of their return to Bhutan and to undermine the will to seek fundamental political changes in the country.


Though India is experiencing economic growth SAHR believes it is important to ensure that the benefits of growth are enjoyed by all sections of society. It is imperative that human rights are not sacrificed for the sake of economic growth as witnessed by recent evictions of tribes and increased violence against marginalized communities.


The Republic of Maldives faces its first multi-party Presidential elections later this year. Yet concerns remain about a number of issues including: the absence of an Independent Election Commission to impartially oversee the Presidential election; the lack of free and independent electronic media; the absence of open and fair access to state owned media for all political parties and candidates; and the need for internationally recognized bodies to be given access to monitor the elections and election preparations.


SAHR congratulates the people of Nepal for inaugurating the newest Republic in the region and hopes that the transition to democracy and the country’s search for a suitable form of government through a new constitution will set an example to the rest of the region. SAHR would like to reiterate that the success of this process depends on the willingness of the government and important political parties to respect human rights and the rule of law.


Pakistan witnessed severe political upheaval with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the declaration of a state of emergency and the dismissal of two-thirds of the country’s senior judges including the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Sustained mass protests by lawyers were met by the state with arrests of lawyers, judges and opposition activists. Attacks on journalists, long term detention without charge of terrorism suspects and violence against women, including rape, honour killings and forced marriages have continued in the country.
The country continues to witness an alarming increase in religious intolerance and militant activity with suicide bombings becoming a daily occurrence and all this affects the life of every citizen. The militants have taken advantage of the heightened political tensions in a year of elections and of a country plunged into crisis after the suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, and have succeeded in entrenching themselves in the tribal areas and several districts of the NWFP. Religious intolerance is on the rise as seen especially after Government’s operation on Lal-Mosque. Over the past few months an extraordinary increase in the cost of living, especially in the cost of food, has accelerated the impoverishment of the people and increased the number suffering from hunger.
In Sri Lanka, the non-implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which provides for the independent appointment of members of the Police Commission, the Judicial Services Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Elections Commission and the Human Rights Commission remains a serious concern particularly in light of the resultant collapse of all the relevant independent commissions. The war on journalists, human rights activists and non-governmental organizations continues unabated with all critics of the government being labelled as traitors. Several restrictions have also been placed on civilians including curtailment of their freedom of movement and freedom of expression.
The situation concerning foreign prisoners in South Asian prisons continues to impose a challenge to the region. SAHR urges the relevant authorities to take speedy measures to confirm the nationality status of these prisoners and to repatriate them to their country of origin.


• SAHR commends the regional leaders of the South Asian governments for agreeing to “make tangible progress in the next six months on four issues which affect our people’s daily lives – water (including flood control), energy, food and the environment”.


• SAHR calls upon all SAARC members to engage with civil society organizations, professional groups and entrepreneurs as these groups are representative of the people whom SAARC places at the epicentre of its development thrust.


• SAHR reiterates the need to respect international human rights and humanitarian law and calls upon all SAARC member states to protect and promote human rights not only within their countries but in the region as a whole.


• Based on the belief that the SAARC forum can and should ensure that the progress and process of democracy in the South Asian region is not hijacked by short-sighted political or economic interests, SAHR urges all member states to guarantee social justice by ensuring the promotion and protection of people’s fundamental rights.


Released in Lahore by


Asma Jahangir

Bureau member and former Co-chair, SAHR

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