Limiting powers: Rights watchdog barters autonomy for funds

Published: February 22, 2016
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National Commission on Human Rights decides to not interfere in ‘sensitive matters’, foregoes Tharparkar visit. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

National Commission on Human Rights decides to not interfere in ‘sensitive matters’, foregoes Tharparkar visit. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

ISLAMABAD: 

In a bid to secure funds from the government for its regular operations, the national watchdog on human rights violations has decided to scale down some of its activities.

In exchange for limiting its role, officials at the ministry of human rights say the government has assured that funds for the body will be released soon.

The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) was formed under the National Commission of Human Rights Act of 2012.

The law hands it massive powers including powers of a civil court to investigate human rights violations by government departments and individuals, suo motu on petitions, visiting detention centres to ascertain the legality of the detention of various people and ensuring detainees are being treated according to law, reviewing and suggesting amendments to Pakistan’s constitutional and legal framework on human rights, making recommendations for the effective implementation of international human rights treaties, and developing a national plan of action for promotion and protection of human rights.

But right from the outset the commission has been at odds with the government

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which had passed the law, did not lay the foundation for the commission. Their successor, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), took nearly two years to lay the foundation for the commission in February 2015.

Since then, the government has held the commission’s funds and administrative autonomy hostage and threatened to set up a parallel body to curb its powers.

“The government has silently clipped powers of the body by making it part of the government’s set ‘rules of business’,” confessed a senior members of the commission before a parliamentary panel recently.

The result, the commission postponed its planned visit to Sindh for ascertaining the cause for scores of child deaths in Tharparkar, despite having taken suo moto action in the matter.

An official familiar with the postponement of the visit said that there was a consensus among members to gather support from opposition parties in order to secure funds and autonomy from the top.

PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar, one of the lawmakers who have been striving for restoration of the commission’s powers while opposing the government’s moves to establish a parallel body, recently brought the matter to light before the upper house of parliament for debate and also in a standing committee.

He said that since its establishment, efforts had been made to make the commission dysfunctional as he questioned the government’s commitment to improving human rights in the country.

Babar also urged that the NCHR to act as an observer and rapporteur in military courts under Article 9 of the Constitution in addition to intervening in the chronic issue of missing persons’.

But an official of the commission said that it had “decided not to interfere in any such ‘sensitive matters’.”

“The parliamentary consensus on the NCHR must not be destroyed,” commented Zafarullah Khan of the Centre for Civic Education.

Former Human Rights Commission of Pakistan chief I A Rehman termed the body essential to improve the human rights record of the country but voiced fear that without resources the commission would not be able to work freely. But for now, the government seems to be in the ascendency.

Meanwhile, officials said that ministry of human rights has received 1,105 human rights violation cases during last two years and referred them to NCHR for appropriate action under rules, officials said.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd,  2016.

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