10 March 2003
1. Although Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), there is a very high level of violence against girls and women in the country. Of particular concern to the Asian Legal Resource Centre is the increased number of 'honour killings' there, a matter that it raised during the fifty-eighth session of the Commission (E/CN.4/2002/NGO/81). Both the Government of Pakistan and the international community are obliged to address this growing crisis without delay.
2. The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees women's equality before the law. The government made a binding commitment to this right when it ratified the CEDAW in 1989. Under that Convention, state parties should take "all appropriate measures to modify... social and cultural patterns" in order to eliminate prejudices and customs based on inferiority or gender-based stereotyped roles and "agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women" (articles 5 & 2). Furthermore, according to article 4, custom, tradition or religious reasons may not be invoked as grounds for not meeting obligations under the CEDAW. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action also exhorted governments to enact and reinforce sanctions in domestic legislation introduced to punish and redress the wrongs done to women and girls who are subjected to any form of violence, and periodically review it to ensure its effectiveness in eliminating violence against women.
3. Despite these obligations, the government has taken no meaningful steps to address the discriminatory laws and customs that encourage honour killings. Police often fail to press charges even when the perpetrators are known. Moreover, when charges are laid, judges tend to pass lenient sentences. During 2002, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women reported that at least 1000 honour killings occur annually in Pakistan, while acknowledging the lack of any accurate statistics on this atrocity (E/CN.4/2002/83). The Special Rapporteur observed that while so many cases go unreported, virtually all go unpunished.
4. The lives of millions of women in Pakistan are circumscribed by traditions that enforce extreme seclusion and submission to men, many of whom impose their control over women with violence. For the most part, women bear the traditional male control over every aspect of their bodies, speech and behaviour with stoicism, as part of their fate. In cases where a woman is believed to have 'dishonoured' her family by having a male friend, marrying a man of her choice or seeking a divorce, tribal councils—in some parts of the country known as jirgas—have decided that all those responsible be killed or otherwise punished. With the expansion of the notion of 'honour' and of what undermines it, not only alleged sexual misconduct of a woman but every act of perceived disobedience may amount to her 'shaming' her family and lead to action to restore 'honour'.
5. Many Pakistanis connect honour killings, tradition and religion, but in fact the jirga tradition has no relationship to religion, and many so-called traditions, particularly "Islamic laws," are not based on religion or tradition. Jirga law is rooted in tribal customs and in the power of elders. Many tribal leaders themselves are parliamentarians or members of the civil administration, or have family links to the administration. In their official capacity they talk about human rights for all, yet in their constituencies they participate in tribal courts. On the one hand they are talking about 'good governance' and 'real democracy', on the other they are handing down their punishments in violation of basic human rights principles, and running private prisons.
6. Although illegal, influenced by powerful clans and biased against women and the poor, the jirga is an institution in Pakistan's informal justice system that is condoned by corrupt police. The Government of Pakistan does not generally take action when jirga decisions lead to murder, rape or other abuses. State officials have also used tribal leaders to solve criminal cases that are pending in court. The state, willing to exchange some of its powers for social stability, has let these men take responsibility for many 'private' matters. This means, in practice, giving a small and relatively homogenous segment of the population absolute power over others, particularly women. The state permits the practice because the official justice system is seen to be ineffective and expensive. A high percentage of the rural population is illiterate and does not know how to approach the official justice system. Corruption in both police ranks and the judiciary also seriously compromises the official system. Presently Pakistan operates under a medley of common law, shariah law and jirga law, among others, but all seem to be ineffective when addressing violence against women and honour killings.
7. Under international human rights law, the state is obliged to ensure the enjoyment of rights to everyone living in its jurisdiction. Consequently, if bodies such as the tribal jirgas carry out state functions, the state still has to ensure that they fully protect these rights. Where such alternative justice mechanisms not only fail to protect but also abuse a range of rights, and where the state has failed to exercise due diligence to prevent such abuse, to investigate it and to bring the perpetrators to justice, the state is responsible for this abuse. It follows that the Government of Pakistan is legally liable for the honour killings being committed under its jurisdiction.
8. Accordingly, the Asian Legal Resource Centre calls on the Commission, and in particular the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, to
ii. Reform its national laws by incorporating CEDAW and other international obligations in its national legal framework.
iii. Incorporate human rights standards on the rights of women into the primary school curriculum, and conduct national civic education programmes on these rights.
iv. Educate officials on international law pertaining to honour killings
v. Pay special attention to developing the relevant investigation skills of its police officers.
vi. Adopt policies to discourage arbitrary actions by tribal courts.
vii. Take all possible steps to end the culture of impunity.
c. Support civil society groups to monitor the administration of justice in Pakistan, particularly as it pertains to the rights of women.
d. Promote a regional strategy to combat violence against women.
* This written statement is issued, unedited, in the language(s) received from the submitting non-governmental organization(s).