NA adopts bill on creation of HR commission
By: Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD: A hard-won consensus carried through the National Assembly on Wednesday a landmark government bill to create a state-funded National Commission for Human Rights, in a rare accommodation to the opposition that was also reflected in the two sides agreeing to ponder together how to overcome gas shortages in Pakistan.
The government accepted all 14 amendments proposed by the opposition PML-N to ensure a unanimous passage of the 30-clause bill, whose final shape after an apparently long bargaining gives parliament and the opposition an affective say in appointing what is designed to be an independent 11-member commission that would meet some constitutional and international obligations as well as a commitment of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s PPP-led coalition.
The nomination of the commission chairperson, who must have been or be qualified to be a judge of the Supreme Court, and nine members will have to go through a hard process – somewhat similar to one for the appointment of the Election Commission – of inviting suggestions through a public notice, consultation between the prime minister and the opposition leader, confirmation by a parliamentary committee before the formal appointment by the president, while a secretary, as the eleventh member, will be appointed by the commission itself.
The original bill, as approved by an 18-member house standing committee on human rights, had provided for an easier, but somewhat ambiguous, procedure of the federal government consulting “relevant stakeholders in a fair and transparent manner” before a mandatory prime ministerial advice to the president to make appointments.
It empowers the president to remove the chairman or a member of the commission from office on grounds of misconduct or physical incapability in the manner provided in article 209 of the constitution for the removal of a judge of the Supreme Court or a high court following inquiries by a supreme judicial council.
The bill now needs Senate approval to become law, whose adoption by the lower house was marked by both sides hailing the consensus in the latest of some acts of comparative peace between the two sides in three days of this week following a prolonged bitterness over issues ranging from energy crisis to PML-N threats to launch a campaign to topple the government and a controversy over an anti-army memorandum sent to a former US military chief in May and now subject of parallel investigations by a parliamentary committee and the Supreme Court.
And as they started the week on Monday with renewed commitments to protect the democracy from “undemocratic” forces and then the government acted the next day to ease gas shortages in Islamabad and Rawalpindi after opposition-aided street protests, the rivals followed up their deal on the bill by agreeing to consider the causes of the overall shortages of natural gas in a house standing committee to find a solution after Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Asim Hussain warned: “If we don’t act together things will go out of hand.”
The National Commission for Human Rights Bill, which was introduced in the house last year and had been put off in the last session last month and for some days of this session for want of consensus, says the commission and every member of its staff “shall function without political or other bias to interference and, unless it expressly otherwise provides”, be independent and separate from any government or administration, though its finances would mainly come from annual federal budget allocations each year.
A statement of objects and reasons accompanying the bill cited some provisions of the Constitution, the government’s agenda for the protection of human rights of Pakistan’s citizens and international obligations as well resolutions of the UN General Assembly and the former UN Commission on Human Rights for the establishment of independent national human rights institutions, the likes of which, it said, were now functioning in more than 54 countries.
Despite the stated noble objectives of the commission to investigate complaints of violation of human rights and make annual reports of its performance, the authors of the bill’s statement seemed to betray the usual official tendency to belittle complaints of widespread violations in the country by stating that the commission “shall also serve as (a) driving force for negating the propaganda of human rights violations in Pakistan”.
The existing main human rights watchdog in the country is the Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, with famous rights activist Asma Jahangir as its driving force, has been functioning since 1987 as a non-governmental organisation whose finances, according to its website, come principally from local subscriptions and donations with partners in a third source “developed on an ad hoc project-by-project basis” coming from donors in Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and Sweden.
The appointment procedure, as given in the PML-N amendment, requires the federal government to give public notice to invite suggestions for suitable persons for appointment as chairperson and members of the commission and, after proper scrutiny, submit a list of these persons to the prime minister and the opposition leader.
“The prime minister, in consultation with the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, forward three names for each post to a parliamentary committee for hearing and confirmation of any one person for each post,” it says.
In the absence of a consensus between the prime minister and the opposition leader, each of them will send separate lists to the parliamentary committee of up to 12 members to be constituted by the National Assembly speaker with equal representation from both the treasury and opposition benches, which will forward its nominees to the president for making appointments.
The functions of commission, which will act as a civil court for redressing human rights violations, in brief, are: inquire into complaints of violations and abetment or negligence of a public servant suo motu or on a victim’s petition; intervene in court proceedings involving allegations applying to become a party before the court; visit prisoners to ascertain if jail manual is followed; review safeguards provided by the Constitution and law for the protection of human rights and recommend new legislation; review factors, including acts of terrorism, that inhibit enjoyment of human rights and recommend remedies; study treaties, other international instruments on human rights and reports submitted by the government on them in order to make recommendations for their effective implementation; undertake and promote research in the field of human rights; maintain a database on complaints of violations and development of human rights norms; spread human rights literacy and promote awareness of available safeguards; and train members of law-enforcement agencies regarding protection of human rights.
The prime minister, who was not present in the house when the vote on the bill took place, issued a statement later congratulating the nation and members of the National Assembly on the passage of what he called “historic” bill.
He said the legislation had been pending since 1993 but “could not be passed due to lack of requisite support”.