LAHORE (ENN) The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has, in partnership with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), released a study titled Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Pakistan: A Legislative Review. The study identifies the laws and procedures that are used to restrict the constitutional right to freedom of peaceful assembly, either directly or indirectly. These include provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, the Police Order, the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and other ancillary laws.
The study maps the range of situations and provinces/areas in which these laws and procedures have been used to restrict this right between 2010 and 2020. Of the 858 assemblies that took place during this period, the study notes at least 392 instances in which curbs on the right to freedom of assembly were disproportionate and unwarranted, involving excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests or detentions, registration of criminal and terrorism charges against participants, imposition of wholesale bans, and other attempts to obstruct assemblies.
The report underscores a massive disconnect between domestic law and international human rights standards related to freedom of assembly, despite Pakistan’s binding legal obligation to bridge these gaps after ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The report recommends reassessing the current legislative framework, which is still deeply rooted in colonial-era policing strategies; creating and enforcing better protocols for law enforcement agencies that involve training in human rights and crowd-management practices, with emphasis on minimal use of force; allowing unrestricted media and digital access to assemblies; and facilitating free speech and movement for all assemblies rather than imposing content-based restrictions or blockading routes.
Provided they are non-violent in action and in speech, assemblies demanding the realisation of fundamental rights and advocating change are essential for a truly democratic society. People’s constitutional right to assemble must be actively protected.