Pakistan government accused of deliberately leaving inoperative its National Commission for Human Rights.
March 29, 2021, the Islamabad high court instructed the Pakistani government to promptly appoint a new head of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), the human rights watchdog in Pakistan (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2021).
This demand from the high court comes shortly after activists, lawyers and legislators accused the current government of delaying the appointment of leadership roles within the commission to avoid facing accountability for human rights violations, especially those committed by the military (ANI, 2021; Bari, 2021). Likewise, some activists and lawyers have attributed the said delay to a “punishment” by the government to the national human rights watchdog over reports that the latter produced which publicised human rights abuses and torture (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2021; Stubbs, 2021).
Since May 2019, when the four-year tenure of NCHR members expired, new commission members have been needed. However, almost two years later, no appointments have been made in a procedure that should have taken no more than one month (Stubbs, 2021). It is in light of these circumstances that the government has been accused of deliberately stalling its functioning (Bari, 2021), leaving the watchdog in a state of limbo and unable to perform its duties in holding the government accountable for human rights violations (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2021).
According to Baloch and Ellis-Petersen (2021), the NCHR’s inactivity for nearly two years has coincided with regression in Pakistan’s press freedom and human rights, as well as allegations of an increase in enforced disappearances carried out by military-linked agencies. What is more, former NCHR chairman Justice Ali Nawaz Chowhan has accused the government of having a vested interest in hindering the body’s efforts to monitor human rights violations like enforced disappearances (ANI, 2021).
Furthermore, ineffective attempts by the government were directed to amend the commission’s state of uncertainty in 2019. For instance, an advert for positions was first placed in May 2019 but then withdrawn without explanation (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2021). Another advert for positions was issued in July 2019, which was later found unconstitutional by Chief Justice Athar Minallah (Bari, 2021). The reason why the second advert was held unconstitutional was the inclusion of a maximum age limit, which the court overruled to make the selection process more inclusive (Bari, 2021). According to Akhtar Cheema, a lawyer and former legal adviser to Pakistan’s senate, the age restriction was deliberately put in place to delay the appointments, since, he argues, the government knew that it would be legally challenged and this would eventually delay the process of selection (Stubbs, 2021).
Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights
The NCHR was established through the Act XVI of 2012 to promote, protect and fulfil human rights, as provided for in Pakistan’s Constitution and the international treaties Pakistan has ratified (NCHR Pakistan, 2021a). Its purpose is provided in the Preamble of the same act:
The establishment of NCHR was set up in accordance with the Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (The Paris Principles), a set of standards drafted during an international workshop held in Paris in 1991 meant to frame and guide the work of National Human Rights Institutions (Democracy Reporting International, 2015). Finally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, these principles include standards on the institutions’ competencies and responsibilities and their methods of operations (Democracy Reporting International, 2015).
The NCHR, as an autonomous state body, operates independently of the government and is directly accountable to the Parliament of Pakistan (NCHR Pakistan, 2021a). Its powers include, among others, the redressal and investigation of human rights violations by public authorities, the review of the Pakistani Legislation for the protection of human rights, recommendations for the adoption of new legislation following human rights standards, the research and advice on policy matters on the situation of human rights in Pakistan, the report on the Government’s implementation and monitoring of the state of human rights in Pakistan, the development of a national plan of action for the promotion and protection of human rights in Pakistan and the contribution to national human rights awareness-raising initiatives in the country (Junaidi, 2019; NCHR, 2021b).
Cross-blame between political parties
The delay in the appointment of head positions of the NCHR in Pakistan has resulted in a battling arena in which the government blames the opposition, despite the multiple accusations it has received by activists, lawyers and the eventual judgement of the Islamabad High Court (Bari, 2021). In other words, not only has the government not acknowledged such accusations, but it has also placed the responsibility for the inactivity of the NCHR upon the opposition.
In response to these accusations, Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari denied that the government was obstructing the watchdog (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen). She argued that such delays were caused because the opposition leader had not responded with their preferences to the list of preferences sent by the government (in particular the Ministry of Human Rights) in December (Stubbs, 2021). She further added that “the laziness is from the side of the opposition, not the government” (Stubbs, 2021), even though the opposition leader was in jail at that time on allegations of money laundering (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2021).
International commitments of Pakistan
Pakistan has signed and ratified many international treaties and conventions in regards to human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). More specifically, the NCHR was created in order to meet Pakistan’s International commitments and obligations made under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) Status, which facilitates Pakistan’s exports to the EU (Ministry of Human Rights, Government of Pakistan, n.d.). In that sense, the EU continuously monitors GSP+ beneficiary countries’ effective implementation of several conventions on human rights for them to continue receiving duties benefits (European Commission, 2020).
Concern about the (in)effectiveness of the NCHR was raised during the Universal Periodic Review’s Third Cycle (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017. In it, several member states directed Pakistan a matrix of recommendations on the strengthening of the NCHR (UPR, 2017). For instance, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Palestine recommended the strengthening of the work of the NCHR (UPR, 2017). Similarly, Guatemala and Portugal advised Pakistan to take all necessary measures to ensure that the NCHR is in line with the abovementioned Paris Principles (UPR, 2017).
Islamabad HC directs Pak govt to revitalise human rights commission after activists accuse PM of sabotaging it (2021, April 9). Asian News International (ANI). https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/islamabad-hc-directs-pak-govt-to-revitalise-human-rights-commission-after-activists-accuse-pm-of-sabotaging-it20210409184421/
Baloch, S. M. & Ellis-Petersen, H. (2021, March 31). Pakistani government accused of “sabotaging” rights watchdog. In The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/30/pakistani-government-accused-of-sabotaging-rights-watchdog
United Nations Human Rights Council (2017). Universal Periodic Review – Pakistan – Third Cycle – Matrix of Recommendations. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/PKindex.aspx
Democracy Reporting International (2015, April). Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights – A Key Step for Maintaining GSP+ Status. https://democracy-reporting.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/dri-pk-bp_54_pakistan__s_national_commission_for_human_rights_04-2015.pdf?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=dbb67f07d7273954166d06211bc1da364a0c6154-1618307024-0-AR-Kc_rYkxhtkcq1Qp8BNYWHpAhGo0oc_hvvUn7Mqs4rdYNZtMN7UuJBskjeLCp2jI4MOYfIeZlKS_2MZBLNE0S0b14vENg5uiDblp3VXM_xExJvy_eD85SYEgACqSb4PvES248YCYhgUTj778CEwB8pStumaoPAovdS5pg1Gn8Avea740g2rImtPJUu04p2ThS3O0xk4d5TYcS2OAO3lhtrZ0wXVlQ0TAVCSISEollGqaYuDDTZGNO3-JBvPEXUBJTuHSH2n9BbTW_h8G3s_nDFV9rX30Z-YhAIVoAyj8oOEU1Ezjl-mdImDYXrUcnplcUqWKhvtg9gvjbFw8p-Vz7cdDQy_HYcc9pxXVgfpRGXff8To1aEnNBaUhqOvsIFNNszvFuxOKrxD8eccalsOdtLk6cEMXIP_G-kAOs31D8ZzNRrjBE8p8-z7Np0lfgZf58eoxHytMjf3MpmHy6xP7zJ5ZnuQHdDreAlr7H02s6jkdH2k1Ei35YNu0B7-Ft8eQ
National Commission for Human Rights – NCHR Pakistan (2021a). Who we are. https://nchr.gov.pk/who-we-are/
National Commission for Human Rights – NCHR Pakistan (2021b). What we do. https://nchr.gov.pk/what-we-do/
Stubbs, T. (2021, April 7). Pakistan Government Accused of Impeding The Country’s National Commission For Human Rights. In Human Rights Pulse. https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/pakistan-government-accused-of-impeding-the-countrys-national-commission-for-human-rights
Bari, M. (2021, April 7). Pakistan government accused of sabotaging human rights commission. In Deutsche Welle (DW). https://www.dw.com/en/pakistan-government-accused-of-sabotaging-human-rights-commission/a-57124832
Junaidi, I. (2019, September 9). National Commission for Human Rights dysfunctional for over three months. In Dawn. https://www.dawn.com/news/1504289
Ministry of Human Rights – Government of Pakistan (n.d.). National Commission for Human Rights. http://www.mohr.gov.pk/Detail/MDUwMDY4ZjAtMTM2YS00YzBkLWI3ZGItY2QyZDIyNDE4NzVh#:~:text=Complying%20with%20its%20international%20obligations,accordance%20with%20the%20Paris%20Principles European Commission (2020). Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP). https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/development/generalised-scheme-of-preferences/