Punishing the National Commission on Human Rights

An independent statutory body looking into human rights violations was not liked by the government, writes Farhatullah Babar

Punishing the National Commission on Human Rights
The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) has been dysfunctional for the last one year. There is no independent institutional mechanism existing today to look into public complaints against violations of human rights. No doubt there is a Ministry of Human Rights, but it is under the executive against which there are complaints of violations. Last year, when the Islamabad High Court gave some relief to the family of a victim of enforced disappearances, the executive decided to file an appeal. The Ministry of Human Rights did not want to appeal but was helpless before the executive.

The commission was the creation of the parliament through a law passed in 2012. It is an independent body empowered to hold investigations into allegations of human rights abuses, either on petitions or on its own. It is mandated to perform multifaceted functions to protect human rights and prevent torture. A review of existing and new human rights laws is also its responsibility. It also reports on the government’s implementation of Pakistan’s international human rights obligations enshrined in various treaties signed and ratified by the government.

The chairman and members of the commission are selected by a bipartisan parliamentary committee with equal representation of the treasury and opposition members. It took three years for the first commission to be set up in May 2015 with consensus in the parliament. The law stipulates a term of four years for the chairman and members of the commission.
It seems that the government was annoyed by the NCHR report on torture which it had submitted to the UN Committee

Despite serious administrative and financial issues, the first commission did a commendable job during its four-year term. It sent fact finding missions to different parts of the country, visited jails and police stations, developed a basic complaint redressal system focusing on torture prevention. It also took up the issue of dispossession of tenants on military farmlands in Okara and other towns in the Punjab. The commission submitted its reports to international human rights bodies and gained respectability as an independent body itself.

Governments thrive on secrecy and opacity. An independent statutory body looking into human rights violations was not liked by it. But being a body set up by the parliament, it could not be undone or brought under it through an executive order. An ingenious way to make it dysfunctional had to be found.

So, when the term of office of chairman and members of the commission expired in May last year, applications were invited for selection by a parliamentary committee. A large number of candidates applied for these posts. However, when the candidates were being shortlisted, the process was suddenly halted. The advertisement inviting applications was withdrawn and it was said that the posts will be advertised again.

The fresh advertisement said that candidates above 65 years were not eligible, although the act itself does not fix an upper age limit. The legislators had not fixed upper age limit intentionally so as to attract suitable persons with commitment and experience.

During discussions in the parliament, it was argued that even if someone too old and infirm was a candidate, it would be obvious to the bipartisan selection committee of the parliament and screened out. Members of the parliamentary committee could be trusted with making a correct judgment, it was argued. Not fixing upper age limit for some specific positions like judges is not uncommon in many countries of the world. There is no upper age limit for election to the parliament also.

No reason was given, nor the law placed before the parliament to amend it. The government could not impose a new condition of upper age limit without the approval of the parliament, but it did. Being unlawful, it was challenged in the court which stayed proceedings. The matter became subjudiced and the commission on human rights effectively buried.

It seems that the government was annoyed by the NCHR report on torture which it had submitted to the UN Committee. While the government reports claimed there was no torture, the commission’s reports acknowledged widespread torture. It also said that there were no institutional or legal frameworks to address torture. The chairman pointed out that even he was not allowed by the NAB to visit its detention centres to investigate allegations of torture. The government could not do anything because the commission was a statutory body and the law permitted it to submit reports to international bodies. The law also did not permit the government to sack any of its members except in the manner as provided in the law, which was not easy.

It seems that the government is punishing the institution of NCHR itself because of its grievances against its previous chairman. Dissatisfaction with one or few in an institution should not result in disbanding the institution itself. A few generals hijacking the nation deserve to be punished but it does not warrant disbanding the army itself. Disbanding the commission will only bring bad name to the country. It could also undermine continuation of the GSP plus status given by the European Union to Pakistan.

The writer is a former senator