A tooth­less com­mis­sion?

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Reema Omer

LAST week, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment de­cided to con­tinue Pak­istan's GSP Plus trad­ing sta­tus, an in­stru­ment of the EU's trade pol­icy that aims to en­cour­age de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to com­ply with core in­ter­na­tional stan­dards in re­turn for trade in­cen­tives.

The de­ci­sion was based on the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion's re­port as­sess­ing Pak­istan's per­for­mance in meet­ing the terms of the GSP Plus. In its Jan­uary re­port, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion had noted with con­cern that "hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions re­main wide­spread in the coun­try", but had com­mended Pak­istan for a num­ber of "con­struc­tive ini­tia­tives" such as "strength­en­ing the in­sti­tu­tional frame­work for hu­man rights, in­clud­ing by es­tab­lish­ing a Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Hu­man Rights [NCHR]".

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion's con­clu­sion that the NCHR has strength­ened the in­sti­tu­tional frame­work for hu­man rights is prob­lem­atic. Since its es­tab­lish­ment in May 2015, three years af­ter the Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Hu­man Rights Act was passed in 2012, there re­main se­ri­ous con­cerns about the com­mis­sion's op­er­a­tion as an in­de­pen­dent and ef­fec­tive hu­man rights watch­dog in com­pli­ance with the Paris Prin­ci­ples, the in­ter­na­tional stan­dards gov­ern­ing the proper func­tion­ing of all na­tional hu­man rights in­sti­tu­tions (NHRIs).

First, nearly a year af­ter its mem­bers were ap­pointed, the com­mis­sion is still only par­tially func­tional: it still does not have a web­site; a fully op­er­a­tional of­fice; or ad­e­quate man­age­rial or sup­port staff. Wor­ry­ingly, the govern­ment has not al­lo­cated funds to en­sure the com­mis­sion's proper func­tion­ing, sub­ject­ing the com­mis­sion to fi­nan­cial con­trol that might af­fect its in­de­pen­dence. This is in clear vi­o­la­tion of the Paris Prin­ci­ples, which state that NHRIs "shall have an in­fra­struc­ture which is suited to the smooth con­duct of its ac­tiv­i­ties, in par­tic­u­lar ad­e­quate fund­ing".

The con­clu­sion that the NCHR has strength­ened the in­sti­tu­tional frame­work for hu­man rights is prob­lem­atic.

Fur­ther­more, ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­ports, the govern­ment is in the process of es­tab­lish­ing an­other hu­man rights in­sti­tu­tion, the "na­tional in­sti­tute of hu­man rights", as part of a "Plan of Ac­tion to Im­prove Hu­man Rights". The man­date of the pro­posed na­tional in­sti­tute has not yet been dis­closed, but it ap­pears to be a par­al­lel hu­man rights body with­out the req­ui­site in­de­pen­dence from the govern­ment.

Se­cond, while the com­mis­sion has an ex­pan­sive man­date to ad­vise on ex­ist­ing laws, poli­cies and pro­posed leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing on their com­pli­ance with in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights laws and stan­dards, the NCHR Act, 2012, sig­nif­i­cantly lim­its the com­mis­sion's ju­ris­dic­tion where the armed forces are ac­cused of com­mit­ting hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. In such cases, the com­mis­sion is only au­tho­rised to seek a re­port from the govern­ment, and make rec­om­men­da­tions if it sees fit. The law fur­ther em­pha­sises that the func­tions of the com­mis­sion "do not in­clude in­quir­ing into the act or prac­tices of the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies".

The com­mis­sion's re­stricted man­date is of grave con­cern given that Pak­istan's mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices are ac­cused of per­pe­trat­ing gross hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances, ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings, and tor­ture and ill treat­ment. Fur­ther­more, given th­ese lim­i­ta­tions on its man­date, it seems ques­tion­able that the com­mis­sion will be able to ob­tain ac­cred­i­ta­tion by the in­ter­na­tional co­or­di­nat­ing com­mit­tee of NHRIs, which is a re­quire­ment for a NHRI to be recog­nised in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Third, even where the com­mis­sion has the man­date, it has failed to take no­tice of some of the most press­ing re­cent hu­man rights is­sues in the coun­try, in­clud­ing the im­po­si­tion of the death penalty; the se­cret tri­als of civil­ians by mil­i­tary courts; the in­jus­tices per­pet­u­ated by the op­er­a­tion of blas­phemy laws; ex­tra­ju­di­cial - or 'en­counter' - killings; and the con­tin­u­ing prac­tice of en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances.

The com­mis­sion's com­plete ab­sence in the discourse on many of th­ese is­sues is strik­ing. For ex­am­ple, the NCHR did not in­ter­vene in de­bates around the 21st Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion, which em­pow­ered mil­i­tary courts to try civil­ians ac­cused of ter­ror­ism-re­lated of­fences. The NCHR also made no con­tri­bu­tion re­gard­ing the com­pat­i­bil­ity of the 21st Amend­ment with in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law and stan­dards in the con­sti­tu­tional pe­ti­tion chal­leng­ing the law in the Supreme Court.

Sim­i­larly, while the Coun­cil of Is­lamic Ide­ol­ogy - an ad­vi­sory body on Is­lamic law - re­cently said it could, if the govern­ment re­quested, re­fer the blas­phemy laws to the CII to as­sess their com­pat­i­bil­ity with Is­lamic law, the NCHR, which has the man­date to even take suo motu no­tice of leg­is­la­tion that vi­o­lates Pak­istan's hu­man rights com­mit­ments, has thus far re­mained silent on the is­sue.

In fact, the chair­per­son of the com­mis­sion, re­tired jus­tice Ali Nawaz Chowhan, is re­ported to have stated that that the only prob­lem with the blas­phemy laws is their "mis­use", a state­ment that is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand given decades of re­search by Pak­istani and in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions high­light­ing the glar­ing in­com­pat­i­bil­ity of the ex­ist­ing blas­phemy laws with hu­man rights law and stan­dards. Fourth, it is un­for­tu­nate that in some cases the com­mis­sion ap­pears to have in­ter­preted its role to act as a spokesper­son for the govern­ment in­stead of an in­de­pen­dent watch­dog to mon­i­tor hu­man rights. Mr Chowhan, for ex­am­ple, when re­cently in Europe, as­sured EU rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the "im­proved hu­man rights sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try" and re­quested con­tin­u­a­tion of the GSP Plus, giv­ing a per­cep­tion of par­tial­ity.

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