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Pakistan’s National Commission for Minorities Is Toothless & Lacks A Legal Basis

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On May 5th, after years of anticipation, the Federal Cabinet of Pakistan announced the formation of a National Commission for Minorities (NCM). Unsurprisingly, the civil society particularly those defending the rights of religious minorities categorically rejected the government’s action, declaring the proposed commission as a “sham” and “toothless”. In their latest press conference, a group of concerned NGOs, lawyers, academics have termed the NCM created by the cabinet as “contempt of court”, as the cabinet openly disregards the Supreme Courts prior judgement. They also raised the point that similar non-statutory minorities rights commissions created in the past had at best been ineffective and at worst regressed the work of thousands of human rights activists and individuals from the minority communities. Civil society groups also reiterated that NCM was also inconsistent with the Paris Principles and Pakistan’s overall international obligations.

Civil society activists took to Twitter to express their discontent – #NoToPowerlessMinoritiesCommission was a popular hashtag for hours. Prominent academic Dr. Yaqoob Khan Bangash tweeted that “the govt has reneged on its commitment to create a statutory National Commission on Minorities and notified yet another sham commission. The media should take note and report.” Legal expert Reema Omer tweeted “PTI’s manifesto promises a “legally empowered” commission on minorities, but the same toothless commission is again being reconstituted”.

The Centre for Social Justice, National Commission for Justice and Peace, Peoples Commission for Minorities Rights and the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation all jointly opposed the formation of the commission. These groups highlighted several issues regarding the Commission’s establishment, its powers and independence.

Why is the civil society of Pakistan outraged?

The need of an empowered commission on minorities has been long felt and discussed. In 2014, the Supreme Court issued a judgement which directed the government to create the NCM. However, the proposed version of the NCM is hardly in line with that judgement and laws. Understandably, the Centre for Social Justice termed the move as “a blatant aberration from the order No. 4 of para 37 of Supreme Court passed on 19 June 2014 (SC SMC 1/2014) by a bench headed by the then Chief Justice Tassauq Hussain Jillani. The judgment stated that:

“a national council (commission) for minorities rights be constituted. The function of the said council should inter alia be to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the constitution and law. The council should also be mandated to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights by the provincial and federal government.”

Civil society groups contend that the current NCM is in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

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The government’s plan in trying to establish the commission through executive order rather than an Act of parliament is deeply flawed. This means that the Commission would not have the same status as other national level commissions which were created through legislation. For example, the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and the National Commission on the Rights of Children (NCRC), all were created by Acts of parliament. The law constituting the NCHR was created in accordance with the Paris Principles which forms a powerful body in essence though not without its fair share of challenges. However, unlike the NCM, the NCHR has a strong legal foundation.

The Paris Principles are basically UN guidelines for the establishment and operation of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). The principles were developed as indicators for institutions established; to assess if they were legitimate, credible, and effective in promoting and protecting human rights. The very first requirement of the Paris Principles is independence. The current NCM fails this condition in two ways.

First, the members of the Commission are mostly high-ranking affiliates of the ruling party, including PTI’s vice-president in Sindh who is the proposed Chairperson. Rights activist, Mr. Parkash Mehtani complained that the commission has members mostly from PTI, whereas the body is supposed to be politically neutral. Second, the NCM lacks a legal basis, which means it will likely remain subservient to the ruling party and will not hold powers or receive public resources through a statutory process. The commission in its current form looks more like the minority affairs wing of the current government, rather than an independent body which has the bandwidth, resources and expertise to safeguard and take action on minorities issues.

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Given the past experience, this NCM will not have the necessary powers to accomplish its declared goal, such as being able to hold inquiries and provide remedies to human rights violations. Consequently, the Commission will be a weak instrument, used to further the government agenda and appease international critics, rather than a stable and progressive body which is able to improve the conditions for minorities in Pakistan.

The “official” or “government” members of the NCM include members from various ministries such as law and justice, human rights and federal education. In addition, representatives from the Council of Islamic Ideology and Ministry of Religious Affairs are also included. “Unofficial” members, will include representatives of Pakistan’s religious minorities, such as Vishno Raja Qavi, Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw, Dr. Mimpal Singh among others. This arrangement indicates the homework the government put into the creation of the Commission.

The PTI led government would have to deliver on its promises of development, change and progress to demonstrate that they have learned from the mistakes of the previous governments. Fortunately, rights groups have warned of the repercussions of this administrative decision. The PTI led government has an opportunity to give religious minorities of Pakistan their due respect and protection from violation of their fundamental rights.

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