President Asif Ali Zardari gave his consent to the National Human Rights Commission Act on Wednesday, clearing the way for the formation of an independent body to protect and promote human rights in the country.
However, the body, members of which will be appointed by a cross-party parliamentary committee, will not have the authority to address or investigate rights violations by members of the armed forces and intelligence agencies.
Passed unanimously by the National Assembly on May 4, 2012, the president authorised the bill into law at a ceremony held at Bilawal House.
According to the bill, the commission, which will have its headquarters in Islamabad, would comprise of 10 members, headed either by a retired judge of the Supreme Court or by a human rights expert. It will comprise of a chairperson, a member from each of the four provinces, Fata and Islamabad Capital Territory, minority communities and the chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women. In addition, there will be two reserved seats for women and another for a person belonging to a religious minority.
The names will be finalised after consultation between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. In case there is no consensus, separate lists will be forwarded by both to the parliamentary committee, which will then approve nominations.
The commission will perform its function through petitions and can also take suo motu action. The body can also intervene in any proceeding involving human rights violations pending before a court, and has all the powers of a civil court.
The body will also recommend the adoption of new legislation or the amendment of existing laws.
In addition, the body or any person authorised by it may visit any jail, place of detention or any other institution under the control of the government or its agencies to determine the legality any detention and living conditions.
The commission would, however, be virtually powerless to investigate any allegation of abuse related to an intelligence agency, Human Rights Watch said. Section 15 of the proposed law states that the “functions of the commission do not include inquiring into the act or practice of intelligence agencies.” Should such a complaint be made to the commission it “shall refer the complaint to the competent authority concerned,” the law states. If the armed forces have been accused of committing a human rights violation, the commission can seek a report from the federal government.
The body will have complete financial and administrative independence. A National Commission for Human Rights Fund will also be established, which would include contribution from the federal government, unconditional contributions from donors and non-governmental organisations. The fund will be audited by the Auditor General of Pakistan, the law states.
A human rights court will be established in Islamabad and an advocate will be appointed by the federal government to ensure swift trials of cases involving human rights violations.
Presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said that Pakistan has already signed seven of the nine core international human rights treaties. Discussions are going on in respect of the remaining two, including one relating to enforced disappearances. He added that a resolution urging the government to sign a convention on preventing enforced disappearances be will taken up on the next private member’s day in the upper house.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2012.
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