UN tells Pakistan to end blasphemy laws, and respect freedom of religion and belief for all

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has today told Pakistan to respect human rights, including freedom of religion and belief, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Atheist Ireland, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland, and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, briefed the UN Committee in Geneva, before it questioned Pakistan in order to produce today’s report.

We were speaking on behalf of persecuted atheists, Ahmadi Muslims and Christians who are living in Pakistan, many of whom are understandably afraid to speak out publicly themselves.

We welcome the UN’s conclusions in the following areas, which we raised in Geneva:

  • Freedom of religion, belief, and conscience, including blasphemy laws
  • The right to participate in public affairs
  • Freedom of expression, and electronic privacy
  • Early marriage and forced marriage
  • Enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings
  • The Counter-Terrorism Act and the death penalty

We are particularly pleased with the emphasis that the UN has put on:

  • Ending the blasphemy laws, which have a mandatory death penalty, and are particularly used against Ahmadis.
  • Ending the mob violence against people accused of blasphemy, and threats to judges hearing blasphemy cases.
  • Punishing hate crimes against people of religious minorities and their places of worship.
  • Removing all religiously biased content from school textbooks and curricula, and regulating madrassas.
  • Ending the separate electoral list for Ahmadis, and giving everybody an equal right to vote in elections.
  • Ending harassment, disappearance, and killing of human rights defenders, who include atheist and secular bloggers.
  • Bringing its law on electronic data collection and surveillance in line with its obligations under the Covenant.
  • Eradicating child marriage, forced marriage, and related harmful practices, which include forced conversions of Christians.
  • Ending the Counter-Terrorism Act definitions that allow Ahmadi publications to be treated as terrorism.
  • Reinstating the moratorium on the death penalty, and either abolishing or significantly restricting it.

The next steps are

  • The Pakistan Government must widely disseminate the Covenant, the questioning, and these concluding observations within Pakistan, including to judges, NGOs and the general public.
  • Within one year, Pakistan must report back to the UN on how it is implementing the conclusions in three specific areas: freedom of religion, conscience and belief; enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings; and the death penalty.
  • The next full questioning and report on Pakistan will be in July 2020.


The full UN report is available online here.

Here is a summary of the UN’s conclusions in the areas that we highlighted:

Freedom of Religion, Conscience and Belief

The UN is concerned about the blasphemy laws (Sections 295 and 298 of Criminal Code), including the mandatory death penalty (Section 295c) and the discriminatory impact of the law on Ahmadis (Section 298bc); violence and intimidation related to blasphemy allegations, as illustrated by the case of Mashal Khan; hate speech and hate crimes against religious minorities and their places of worship; and the religiously biased content in textbooks and curricula in public schools and madrassas.

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • Repeal all blasphemy laws, or bring them strictyly into line with human rights standards.
  • Bring to justice those who incite or engage in violence based on blasphemy allegations.
  • Bring to justice those who make false allegations of blasphemy.
  • Protect judges and others involved in blasphemy trials.
  • Punish hate speech and hate crimes against people of religious minorities.
  • Remove all religiously biased content from school textbooks and curricula.
  • Incorporate human rights education in school textbooks and curricula.
  • Continue to regulate madrassas.
  • Fully implement the 2014 Supreme Court judgment on freedom of religion, belief and conscience.

Right to Participate in Public Affairs 

The UN is concerned at the removal of Ahmadis from the general electoral list and registering them on a separate voting list; as well as other obstacles to voting and participation in public affairs.

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • Ensure that all voters are included in electoral lists and that all citizens can exercise their right to vote without obstacles.
  • Ensure that minority quotas apply to all persons belonging to religious, cultural and ethnic minorities.
  • Ensure that every citizen, on general terms of equality, is able to effectively participate in the conduct of public affairs and have access to public services.

Freedom of Expression

The UN is concerned about criminal laws being improperly enforced against journalist and dissenting voices; and the disappearance, killing and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders and lawyers (note: during the questioning of Pakistan, this category included the case of the secular bloggers from earlier this year).

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • End improper enforcement of criminal law against journalists and dissenting voices.
  • Review its laws relating to freedom of expression, including Article 19 of the Constitution, PEMRA (Amendment) Act 2007, and the Code of Conduct for broadcast media.
  • Investigate all reported cases of harassment, disappearance, and killing of human rights defenders and bring the perpetrators to justice.
  • Ensure a safe and favorable environment for the work of journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders.

Electronic Privacy

The UN is concerned that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 provides for overbroad powers without sufficient independent judicial oversight, mandatory mass retention of traffic data by service providers, and unduly restrictive licensing requirements of service providers.

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • Bring its law on data collection and surveillance, in particular, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, in line with the Covenant.
  • Establish independent oversight mechanisms for implementing the Act.
  • Adopt a comprehensive data protection law in line with international standards.

Early marriage and forced marriage

The UN is concerned that the minimum age for marriage is set differently for girls at 16 years and for boys at 18 years in some provincial laws; the practice of the Ghag, forced marriage, and child marriage continues; and a high number of victims of such practices have attempted or committed suicide.

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • Ensure that the minimum age for marriage is 18 for both girls and boys.
  • Eradicate forced marriage and related harmful practices.
  • Carry out prompt and effective investigations of all reported cases, and prosecute those responsible if appropriate.
  • Ensure that victims are provided with appropriate remedies and rehabilitation services.

Enforced Disappearance and Extrajudicial Killings

The UN is concerned at the high incidence of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings allegedly by the police and military and security forces, and related matters.

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • Criminalise enforced disappearance.
  • End to the practice of enforced disappearance and secret detention.
  • Repeal or amend the Actions (in aid of Civil Powers) Regulations 2011.
  • Investigate all allegations of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings
  • Prosecute and punish all perpetrators commensurate with the gravity of the crimes.
  • Protect the families, lawyers, and witnesses of disappeared persons.
  • Put in place full and prompt reparation for victims and their families.
  • Further strengthen the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearance.

Counter-Terrorism Act

The UN is concerned about the very broad definition of terrorism in the Anti-Terrorism Act; the power of the authorities to detain a person for up to one year; the admissibility of confessions made in police custody as evidence in courts; the extensive jurisdiction of Anti-Terrorism Courts and the huge backlog of cases, and the absence of procedural safeguards in court proceedings.

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • Align the definition of terrorism in accordance with international standards.
  • Removing the jurisdiction of Anti-Terrorism Courts over juvenile offenders.
  • Bringing court proceedings in line with Articles 14 and 15 of the Covenant.
  • Reduce the existing backlog of cases.

The Death Penalty

The UN is concerned that Pakistan lifted the moratorium on death penalty in 2014 and since then has been one of the States with the highest rate of executions.

The UN concluded that Pakistan should:

  • Reinstate the moratorium on the death penalty and either abolish or restrict it to ensure:
  • It is only for the “most serious crimes” involving intentional killing
  • It is never mandatory, and pardon or commutation is available in all cases
  • It is never imposed without fair trial or by military courts.
  • It is not enforced against anyone who was under 18 at the time of the offence.
  • Treat defendants as children if doubts remain about their age.
  • It is not enforced against anyone with serious psychosocial or intellectual disabilities.
  • Pakistani migrant workers are provided with sufficient legal and consular services.
Atheist Ireland