A National Human Rights Commission in the Making

The News, Dec 4: Finally, the bill that shall give birth to a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is on the National Assembly’s to-do List. Though it will still take some time to pass the bill in both houses, have approval of the President and put the Commission in place, yet it is good news. Many nations have found NHRCs useful for: strengthening norms and values based on human dignity and rights, reducing burden on the justice delivery system and dealing with rigidity of obsolete laws. As ‘The Statement of Object and Reasons’ attached to this bill explains, 56 countries have this arrangement in place recommended by several UN bodies and international treaties.

Besides the significance of reporting this development to the UN Human Rights Council’s session in October 2012 that shall review human rights situation of Pakistan (second time during the incumbency of this government), forming a human rights institution will have an added value in the present circumstances of Pakistan. There is a tremendous potential in this proposition as it seeks to build an institution over universally agreed upon standards of rights and liberties. Minus any expediencies and bureaucratic hurdles, a truly independent and effective NHRC can give new life to the dream for a democratic and autonomous Pakistan, much beyond the political rhetoric.

Nevertheless, it would be a big challenge for the NHRC to function and deliver in the midst of feeble government machinery, massive human rights abuses and high expectations. Just imagine the flood of complaints that is bound to pour in the good offices of the proposed Commission, with given misunderstanding among the citizens on the difference between rights and charity.

The 11 member body is going to need an elaborate arrangement and mechanism to process and respond to a huge number of complaints of human rights violations. While an adequate number of motivated and skilled staff is a must, the provincial governments must either be required to provide an outreach infrastructure to match the needs of a large demographic and geographic spread as Pakistan or legislate to form such Commissions at provincial levels as well. India, for instance, has one for each of its States besides a NHRC. The Provincial autonomy will have to be given a due regard, however, parochial approaches will have to be discouraged. The South Korean NHRC model would be also good to look at that dealt with the aftermath of prolonged autocratic rules in their country.

The impact of this initiative will largely depend on the role assigned to this institution, its formation and autonomy with regard to rules of business. A clause in the bill that requires NHRC to report to the government, which would be some ministry, looks an impediment as far as autonomy of the new entity. It would serve the purpose well if the proposed Commission should only report to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Rights once a year, in collaboration with but without the approval of any ministry.

With the experiences at hand of such Committees and Commissions in the past that could deliver a little and met enormous difficulties owing to the lack of financial and legal autonomy, the parliament will have to abridge these gaps in the bill. Without restricting the mandate of NHRC in the area of human rights, choices will have to be made with regard to its terms of reference. A distinction in gross and systematic human rights violation will help the course of action and modes operandi of remedial as well as investigative work of the Commission. Bringing Directorate of Human Right under the NHRC would be logical. Apart from the logistics and modalities there are challenges regarding the conceptual issues and education of the citizens in human rights?

The biggest challenge is about building a culture for human rights in social, legal and political systems that have become averse to rights and freedoms. What plans the well-intentioned people in the government and in civil society have to go about this? If the political parties claim a commitment to peoples’ rights, this commitment needs to be reflected in serious and result oriented actions.

Along with the proposed NHRC, we need a greater commitment in the form of a parliamentary pledge that this country will never have a law that contravenes the rights of the people of Pakistan, that the country will get rid of discrimination in whatsoever form and manifestation. That equality of citizens is not going to be a bookish concept but it will become part of daily life.

Once the NHRC becomes a reality the two big political parties — PPP and PMLN — can congratulate themselves for having achieved another goal set out in the Charter of Democracy (CoD). As far as institutional reforms, Pakistan also needs to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, something that COD pledged to establish as well. Issues concerning transitional justice are a cause of lurching confusion; be it May 2nd incident or other tragic incidents in the life of the nation. There is a long way to go in structural, institutional and sectoral reforms, through reforming laws and policies. We better make a resolute start and catch up with time.

The writer is executive head of the National Commission for Justice and Peace established by the Catholic Church in Pakistan. He studied Law, Political Science and Rural Development and has been associated with human rights and peace building work for the past twenty four years. He can be reached atjacobpete@gmail.com


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