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Pakistan needs laws to better protect refugees, says Chief Justice

Pakistan needs laws to better protect refugees, says Chief Justice

The Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, Sheikh Riaz Ahmed, has told judicial officers at a UNHCR workshop that while the country has been supportive towards refugees, domestic laws on refugee issues lag behind its international obligations.
26 December 2003
Chief Justice Sheikh Riaz Ahmed (seated, fourth from right) and UNHCR's Philip Karani (seated, second from left) with workshop participants in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec 26 (UNHCR) - A top-ranking justice official in Pakistan has called for a new approach to deal with refugee-related court cases in a country that hosts millions of refugees but lacks domestic legislation to protect their rights adequately.

On Wednesday, the Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, Sheikh Riaz Ahmed, opened a two-day workshop on international mechanisms for the protection of human rights of refugees, women and children. Fifty judicial officers attended the event organised by the UN refugee agency and the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners Aid (SHARP), one of UNHCR's implementing partners for legal assistance to Afghan refugees.

The Chief Justice noted that even though Pakistan has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has hosted millions of refugees for decades on humanitarian grounds. "Not only has the government of Pakistan been very supportive towards refugees, the judiciary has also played a very constructive role, whenever possible, in protecting their rights."

He acknowledged, however, that there is a gap between the country's domestic laws and its international obligations. "It is vital to bring the domestic laws in coherence with the international conventions on human rights to move forward with the image of a civilised society," he said.

"Human rights are to be respected, protected and fulfilled mainly by the state to its population, without any discrimination, irrespective of gender, colour, ethnicity, religion, language, etc. In pursuit of their obligation, the state makes legislation and laws, which are then implemented through its different institutions and organs," explained the Chief Justice.

He added, "In this entire setup, the role of the judiciary is vital as it is one of the prime pillars that safeguard the rights of the people. It also ensures that the state meets its obligations under domestic and international law in respecting and protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals within its jurisdiction."

In addition to human rights, the workshop also focused on topics ranging from children's and women's rights, to the prison system in Pakistan, and the international protection of refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

"The workshop hopes to initiate a thought-provoking process for a new approach to dealing with refugee cases," said Jahangir Durrani, UNHCR's assistant protection officer. "Judges deal with refugee-related cases almost on a daily basis. Our aim is to sensitise members of the judiciary and to encourage them to ponder on one simple question - in the absence of domestic legislation on refugees and in the presence of the Foreigners Act, are there any other laws that could benefit refugees?"

Philip Karani, UNHCR's acting representative in Islamabad, noted, "Pakistan's track record had been one of hospitality and generosity in terms of the treatment of refugees and providing them with asylum for the last two decades." But without refugee laws in the country, he added, refugees are often arrested and detained under the Foreigners Act. He asked the judiciary to protect the human rights of refugees.

In response, Senator Shahzad Waseem of the Pakistan Parliamentarians Commission for Human Rights told the workshop's concluding session on Thursday that the commission has submitted a new bill in parliament to bring about amendments in the Foreigners Act. The proposed amendment, which could also pave the way for new legislation on refugee issues in Pakistan, will hopefully be tabled for discussion in the early session of parliament next year.