Unlike in more developed countries where significant time and resources are spent on human rights issues, poorer countries struggle to find resources to meet basic survival needs let alone to promote and protect human rights. Pakistan and Afghanistan also have rich cultures defined by a conglomeration of diverse backgrounds; unfortunately, the diversity sometimes has adverse effects on equality and human rights. When certain majority groups hold power or even when minority groups gain power, the tendency is to protect their own, which often comes at the cost of undermining the rights of others. The constant struggle for survival frequently overshadows the basic principles of human rights while conflict and disasters negatively affect progress. Despite the challenges, the government, humanitarian agencies, and civil society must play a pivotal role in protecting and promoting human rights at the national and community levels.
Decades of political history tell us that a pendulum of an imbalance of power hinders well-intended political actions toward international standards and commitments for human rights. Over the past two decades, a greater effort to combating human rights issues by designating government agencies to deal with related topics and officially ratifying international declarations have been made. In 2008, Pakistan ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; in 2010, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment were ratified. During the same year, the Ministry of Human Rights was born out of the Ministry of Law and Justice. In Afghanistan, in the early eighties, the country became party to several international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Currently, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which was established in 2001, works for ensuring protection of human rights. Dr. Sima Samar, Chair of the AIHRC, expresses the following in the AIHRC’s 2010-2013 strategy, “Despite existing commitments, strategies, and policies developed to improve the human rights situation, many men, women, and children continue to suffer from extreme poverty, high unemployment, systemic discrimination and a lack of access to healthcare, schools, and adequate housing. Implementation and enforcement of legislation to protect human rights also remains limited due to weak judicial institutions.” A framework for protecting human rights exists in both countries; improved implementation of the laws and commitment for human rights is needed.
Where human rights issues, violations, and achievements have the most impact is at the community and household level. Difficult to access, rural communities that face abject poverty and lack of education are unlikely to know about the laws intended to protect them. However, it is not only in rural communities that human rights violations occur; even in urban areas violations are common and frequent. In the AIHRC strategy, Dr. Samar describes, “The low level of public awareness about human rights has also prevented citizens from realizing and accessing their rights and misperceptions about human rights have been used to justify human rights violations such as forced and child marriage and to deny women's right to education, work, and political participation.” A woman abused by her husband and a child denied education or forced into early marriage or child labor often does not realize that this is not an acceptable or not a normal part of life. Therefore, efforts to bring social change within communities and educate people about human rights and peaceful coexistence make a real difference in the everyday lives of ordinary citizens.
International and local NGOs, civil society, and individuals play a vital role in raising awareness of human rights issues. The incorporation of awareness of human rights, gender equality, child rights, and other relevant topics into development initiatives designed to eliminate poverty and increase access to education and health services helps ensure greater sustainability and improves the quality of life for community members, particularly marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities, women, and children. Pakistan and Afghanistan also face repeated natural disasters and conflict that place vulnerable groups at greater risk for violations such as human trafficking, violence, and kidnapping. Organizations are placing more emphasis on emergency response that accounts for gender issues, protection, and identifying the most vulnerable people for immediate assistance. By accounting for existing human rights issues and violations, humanitarian agencies positively contribute to the overall goal of achieving human rights for all. Despite this commitment, instances remain where humanitarian agencies unintentionally cause harm by taking action that inadvertently further marginalizes group of people. It is imperative that organizations act responsibly and recognize the positive as well as negative impacts their actions can have on communities.
In 2008, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights reached its sixtieth anniversary; speaking of the momentous event, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon stated, “It is our duty to ensure that these rights are a living reality—that they are known, understood, and enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. It is often those who most need their human rights protected, who also need to be informed that the Declaration exists—and that it exists for them.” With this sense of duty and dedication, initiatives to eliminate poverty, lack of education, corruption, and abuse of power continue to strengthen the progress toward achieving human rights. At the same time, celebrating the diversity both countries possess through arts and culture events further raises awareness of tolerance and peaceful coexistence which are necessary for achieving human rights for all. Sharing the message and meaning of human rights for all with two hundred million people will take a long time. However, some steps in the right direction have been made, although a lot more effort is still required. Because of the endeavors to acknowledge and overcome the political, judicial, and social challenges, slowly communities are becoming more aware of their basic human rights and are participating in advocating for safeguarding their rights. While politically, judicially, and socially challenges exist, the willingness to encourage and permit individuals and organizations to work with communities for improved human rights and peace initiatives enables individuals to appreciate the meaning of life in a new way.