Safeguarding human rights
President Asif Ali Zardari’s decision to sign a law passed by parliament forming a National Human Rights Commission is, at first glance, a welcome move. The commission will be headed by an experienced judge; will have both minority and women members and have the power, like every court, to take suo motu actions on human rights abuses. All of these moves are to be lauded but it becomes difficult to support this commission when one realises that it has carved out an exemption for the military, which may well defeat the purpose of such legislation. The commission does not have the authority to investigate the intelligence agencies, instead having to refer any possible human rights violation pinned on them to “the competent authority concerned”.
From abductions, torture and murder in Balochistan to accusations of brutality in the fight against militancy, the intelligence agencies have been implicated in many violations of human rights in the country. Even now, there are many who think that they were involved in the gruesome death of Saleem Shahzad. Exempting them from the jurisdiction of the human rights commission only confirms our worst fears: there is one set of rules for the military in this country and another for everyone else. Already, the superior judiciary has been accused of taking action only against the civilian government while taking an easier stance on the establishment. Now, a new commission with the powers of a court has this double standard written into the very law that created it.
Other than that, there is one minor objection to the formation of the National Human Rights Commission. Courts already have the power to investigate human rights abuses but now the commission will be able to take over court cases if it so desires. That may end up causing a legal jumble, with no one sure which court has ultimate authority and how judgments of the commission can be appealed. In its haste to be seen as taking action in favour of human rights, the government may have ended up passing a law that, while positive on the whole, has too many loopholes to be truly effective.