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A toothless commission

Pakistan on 09 April 2014
Location : Pakistan | Source : Dawn. Image Source: Flickr User martin pettitt

VARIOUS international conventions see human rights as the bedrock of a better tomorrow. Although considered inalienable, such rights are often also enacted in domestic legislation for effective enforcement. This applies to Pakistan too, which has codified rights, and which offers redress against their infringement.

And yet, Pakistan has an abysmal record in tackling rights violations. Human Rights Watch alone, in its World Report 2013, painted a sorry state of affairs in Pakistan where sectarian violence, enforced disappearances and intolerance towards minorities were cited as some of the worrying indicators.

It was perhaps as a result of this, and of international obligations, that Pakistan felt the need to establish a National Commission for Human Rights in pursuance of the National Commission for Human Rights Act, 2012.

The 2012 act implicitly recognised that constitutional provisions and legislation for redressing rights grievances were already present in Pakistan. It also acknowledged that the available mechanisms of redressal had not been effective in arresting human rights violations. Hence, the legislature sought the establishment of the commission for greater transparency, and more effective redressal of issues resulting from infringement of rights.

Unfortunately, the act appears to have fallen short of its goals. Firstly, despite the passage of almost two years, the commission is reportedly yet to be constituted. This shows lack of seriousness on the part of the government.

Secondly, its scope has been limited to the right to life, liberty and dignity of man, including political and women rights, as contained in various international instruments.

The right to life, liberty and dignity in international instruments largely revolves around the protection of an individual from arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, capital punishment and all positive actions associated with the protection of such rights.

Hence, by limiting the scope of the commission to rights as envisioned under international instruments, as opposed to their broader equivalents in domestic legislation, the legislature has on the face of it narrowed the human rights discourse coming within the purview of the commission.

Thirdly, the commission has no authority to reprimand any violator of human rights in any manner whatsoever. In fact, as per the act, even if an inquiry has been satisfactorily concluded against any individual, the commission can at most issue non-binding recommendations to the government urging action against the culpable individual. This in itself showcases the legislature’s short-sightedness in creating a forum focused on human rights violations, without empowering it to tackle even the most obvious of infractions.

Further, in an attempt to ensure transparency, the commission is required to publish its findings and/or reports for public consumption. However, the utility of such a measure has been limited by the commission’s dependence on the federal government and other agencies to complete its tasks.

For example, although it is enabled to inquire into human rights violations by way of suo motu actions or complaints received, amusingly, the commission appears more of a post office in terms of complaints regarding the armed forces. It is to forward them to the government, and wait for its response. Once received, it could either decide not to proceed with the complaint, or issue non-binding recommendations to the federal government to take action against the said violator solely on the basis of the information provided by the government.

As if this were not enough, the commission appears to have also been barred from investigating the affairs of intelligence agencies on its own motion. If any complaint is received, the commission is to simply forward the complaint to the competent authority (which interestingly has not been defined in the act). Upon receiving a response, it may or may not recommend action on the basis of the reply of the competent authority.

Finally, the independence of the commission itself is in doubt in light of the fact that it is to rely on funds from local donors as well as the federal government for its financial well-being. Additionally, if the commission seeks funds from a foreign donor, it would require the federal government’s prior permission. Hence, the government can be seen as having an overwhelming role in the financial affairs of the said body.

Quite clearly, then, the establishment of the commission is fraught with difficulties. The commission has been denied effective powers, barred from effectively inquiring into the activities of the armed forces and its agencies, and inherently lacks transparency. Sadly, and in the larger scheme of things, it appears that the commission will have as much of an effect on the human rights situation in Pakistan as a single drop of water would have in the ocean.

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