Fault-lines in the Minorities Commission Bill

It was a long-term demand of minority communities

Before being dissolved, on August 10, 2023, the National Assembly was especially active in its last days and passed dozens of bills. Political historians, legal experts and rights activists were overwhelmed, warning legislators not to make what most observers fear will prove to be catastrophic mistakes. However, lawmakers voted in haste to pass the sticky legislation. There was not even little debate on the bills passed. This is deeply problematic, as legislative power is a trust reposed by the public in the representatives they send to parliament. It should never be exercised without adequate transparency and accountability.

Among the plethora of bills approved in the parliament, one was the National Commission for Minorities Bill, 2023 that was passed on August 7. Civil society and religious minorities have strong reservations over this bill. It is telling that just before the National Minorities’ Day, on 11th August, the lower house passed National Commission for Minorities Bill, 2023, amid continued ignorance of concerns raised by civil society organisations (CSOs) and religious minorities.

It was a long-term demand of minority communities that the National Commission for Minorities’ Rights (NCMR) should be established by an act of parliament like other National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). But the bill passed by NA cannot craft a truly functional, autonomous and resourceful institution to safeguard minority rights.

Historical Perspective: A look at the history of ad hoc minority rights commissions formed by the Federal Ministry for Religious Affairs in 1990 reveals a lack of progress in policy reforms and resolution of complaints related to minorities’ rights due to inadequate legal basis, limited mandate, lack of independence and insufficient resources.

The Supreme Court, therefore, tasked the government with constituting a National Council (Commission) for Minorities’ Rights to delve deeper into the problem, in 2014. Then Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jilani directed establishing a commission “to monitor the practical realisation of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the Constitution and law” and “have the ability to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities rights’ by the Provincial and Federal Governments”.

While the judgement was lauded for its initiative, the political will to implement the practical steps that the Supreme Court outlined towards building a more cohesive and inclusive society in Pakistan has been by and large absent. Three bills have been introduced before the parliament to build momentum in creating an independent, statutory Commission but to no avail. The government presented strong objections to The Commission for Minorities Bill, 2015, moved by Beelam Hasnain; The Commission for Minorities Bill, 2015, moved by Lal Chand Malhi; and The Commission for Minorities’ Bill, 2016, moved by Sanjay Perwani. The government argued that the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) would merge all three private bills and promulgate a comprehensive bill, however, nothing materialised.

It was not until 2018 when the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Centre for Social Justice, and the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation filed public interest litigation before the Supreme Court to have the 2014 judgement implemented. The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) was established on 5 May 2020 not through an act of parliament, rather it was set up by the federal cabinet. And, consequently it is a government body rather than an independent, statutory institution.

Key Issues Regarding Recent Bill: “The name of the institution should be the National Commission for Minorities’ Rights, instead of National Commission for Minorities, to ensure its primary focus on safeguarding and advocating for minority rights. It will also be aligned with other NHRIs like National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR),” said Peter Jacob, Chairperson of the Peoples’ Commission for Minorities Rights.

In a statement issued on August 8, the Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights (JAC) highlighted that the bill’s provisions are inconsistent with the UN Paris Principles and the directives of the Supreme Court (SMC No. 1 of 2014), urging the government to take immediate steps towards enacting a more robust and comprehensive NCMR.

The preparation of NCMR bill is beyond the purview and competence of MORA, rather it should be prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights as it is a matter of rights. All other NHRIs are established through the bills initiated by the Ministry of Human Rights. There is a minority rights institution not a religious body in the making.

While recognising religious diversity, there must be proportional representation for smaller religious communities, with a single seat for Sikhs. A diverse composition that includes four Hindu members, from both upper and scheduled castes, and as many Christian members from different provinces, to incorporate regional representation.

To ensure the greater independence, government representation within and influence over the commission should be reduced.

The inclusion of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) representation in the bill is questionable, as the stakes for these actors are tenuous.

There is a strong recommendation for the body to add representatives from existing NHRIs including NCHR, the National Commission on the Status of Women and the National Commission on the Rights of Child, to enhance cooperation among human rights institutions and avoid redundancy.

Allocating a sufficient budget to the commission for financial autonomy, reflecting the government’s commitment to supporting national human rights institutions, is a prerequisite.

The appointments to the commission should be based on merit rather than just religious or caste identity, emphasising the commission’s role as a human rights institution. Members should have experience as human rights defenders. The parliament should play a central role in appointment process and to ensure the commission’s accountability by presenting an annual report to the parliament itself, rather than to the President of Pakistan.

Way Forward: Fortunately, due to very timely advocacy of CSOs with the senators, the National Commission for Minorities Bill, 2023 is dropped in the Senate on 9th August. Looking at the above key issues, there is a dire need to revise it, in order to establish an institution that truly upholds the rights and protection of minority communities. Hopefully, when this bill will be taken up again, parliament members will address the concerns of CSOs and religious minorities to establish an autonomous, effective and resourceful NCMR consistent with the UN Paris Principles and the directives of the Supreme Court from 2014 onwards.

An independent and efficient NCMR can be one step towards checking the incidents like Jaranwala mob violence. It is a reminder that a powerful commission along with compliance of other six directives of the Jilani judgment will improve the lives of marginalised communities.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2023.

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