Pakistan faced one of the worst economist crises of its history in 2023, Human Rights Watch declared this week, stressing this had jeopardized millions of people’s rights to health, food, and an adequate standard of living.
In its annual World Report 2024, the rights watchdog’s chapter on Pakistan notes poverty, inflation, and unemployment all soared in the past year. “The insistence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on austerity and the removal of subsidies without adequate compensatory measures resulted in additional hardship for low-income groups,” it said, adding the country also remained vulnerable to climate change, with more frequent and intense climate events.
Inflation, a depreciating rupee, and the removal of subsidies for electricity and fuel without adequate compensatory measures made it difficult for many people in Pakistan to realize their economic and social rights, it said. An IMF deal aimed at shoring up dwindling reserves saw massive hikes to utility tariffs, triggering widespread protests against higher electricity bills, inflation, and food shortages.
Nearly 37 percent of Pakistan’s 230 million people faced food insecurity as of 2018, yet only 8.9 million families received assistance to mitigate the impact of rampant inflation, it noted.
Alongside the economic crises, said the report, Pakistan’s political crises also deepened, with the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)-led government suppressing media, NGOs and the political opposition in a manner similar to its predecessors. “The authorities used draconian counterterrorism and sedition laws to intimidate peaceful critics,” it said, adding blasphemy-related violence against religious minorities, facilitated partly by discriminatory laws, also intensified. “Attacks by Islamist militants, notably the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), targeting law enforcement officials and religious minorities, killed dozens of people in 2023,” it added.
The last year, said the report, saw various attacks on media, including from the government, with outlets pressured not to criticize government institutions or the judiciary. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters, in the May 9 riots, also attacked the offices of Radio Pakistan and the Associated Press of Pakistan in Peshawar. The last year also saw the “disappearance” of journalist Imran Riaz Khan for several months, and the detention of reporter Fayaz Zafar for allegedly spreading fake news.
Lamenting Pakistan’s failure to amend or repeal blasphemy laws that are used as pretext for violence against religious minorities, it said members of the Ahmadi community remained major targets. The August attack on a Christian settlement in Faisalabad over blasphemy allegations resulted in over 100 arrests, but locals told rights activists police had told them prior to the mob assault they could not stop it.
Human Rights Watch noted violence against women and girls remains a serious problem across Pakistan, with estimates of roughly 1,000 women murdered in “honor killings” every year. Millions of girls are married underage, per UNICEF estimates it said, while women from religious minorities remained vulnerable to forced marriage. Similarly, of the 20 million school-aged children who remain out of school, most are girls, it said.
Attempts to ban child domestic workers have failed, read the report, referring to the case of 14-year-old Rizwana who was allegedly tortured while employed by a judge’s family. Child sexual abuse, it said, also remains common.
The report cited lack of awareness about mental health for the abuse of those with psychosocial disabilities, including prisoners.
The past year, noted HRW, saw a resurgence of terrorism perpetrated by the TTP, Al Qaeda, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the ISKP, and their affiliates, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries. The May 9 riots, similarly, saw violence nationwide, with those accused of breaking and entering into restricted access military installations tried in military courts, violating principles of due process and fair trial.
Transgenders in Pakistan also remained under attack, said the report, with a ruling of the Federal Shariat Court reversing gains of the Transgender Act 2018.
On the government’s ongoing repatriation policy, primarily targeting Afghans, the report said authorities continued to intimidate and harass Afghans living in Pakistan. “Undocumented Afghans remained vulnerable to abuse by police and district administrations and faced difficulties in accessing employment and education,” it added.
The report noted the European Union had extended Pakistan’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status by another four years, enabling Pakistan to enjoy trade preferences and access to the European market. The past year also saw a positive momentum in ties between Pakistan and the U.S., while in August Pakistan made a formal submission to the ICJ on the legal consequences of Israel’s prolonged occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Pakistan and China, said the report, deepened their extensive economic and political ties in 2023, and work continued on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.