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Beyond Commissions: Institutionalizing Minority Rights In Pakistan

2 June 2020

By Naumana Suleman, CREID Programme Officer at Minority Rights Group International

On the 5th of May the government of Pakistan announced the establishment of a National Commission for Minorities. One can take it as a good gesture. However, like the successive governments, serious consideration has not been given to this very important initiative. Since 1990, this kind of ad hoc commission – rather committee – has been established several times without any office, staff, proper mandate and rules of business, and it remained unable to create any positive impact and address minority rights issues. Therefore, it has been a long-standing demand of human rights activists and organizations in Pakistan – particularly by those who themselves belong to various minority communities – that a minority rights commission must be established as a statutory body. The said commission can only make its impact if it is constituted through a legislative process as an independent and autonomous commission and provided with adequate resources.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan on 19 June 2014, in its landmark judgement on minority rights ordered that “A National Council for minorities’ rights be constituted. The function of the said Council should inter alia be to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the Constitution and law. The Council should also be mandated to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights by the Provincial and Federal Government”. Thus, establishment of an ad-hoc minority rights commission by the federal cabinet is a violation of Supreme Courts’ judgement. It is also contrary to the pledge made by PTI in its election manifesto, 2018 that states “we will enact structural reform to establish a legally empowered, well-resourced and independent National Commission on Minorities, followed by Provincial Commissions/ Departments”.

In addition, the state of Pakistan has an obligation under the international human rights law to constitute National Commission for Minority Rights through a legislative process, in accordance with the Paris principles, to uphold fundamental rights of minorities as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan and in the international human rights treaties, to which Pakistan is a state party. It has to be constituted in the same manner as of the National Commission for Human Rights, National Commission on the Status of Women and National Commission on Rights of the Child.

Once constituted, this statutory body must include representation from all the minority communities in Pakistan, including minority women who are often a marginalized segment within minority communities and under-represented at several forums. The commission should also include persons from the majority community. All the members of the minority rights commission should be eligible individuals with proven human rights work experience and track record. Members should not include political or religious representatives of any community, so that the commission can operate independent of any political or religious pressure or influence. After all, it has to be mandated to deal with minorities’ human rights issues including freedom of religion or belief, but not with the actual religious affairs of any community.

Nevertheless, the quest to institutionalize minority rights in Pakistan needs more initiatives besides establishing the statutory commission for minority rights. It requires the country to ensure minorities’ right to education without discrimination, elimination of hate speech against minorities from education curricula and offline and online spheres, implementation of 5% job quota for minorities in letter and spirit and introducing an equal education quota for minorities. It further needs robust measures at administrative and social levels to develop an understanding of rights-based issues when it comes to the question of equality and non- discrimination among Pakistani citizens.

Making human rights education a compulsory part of the academic curricula at all levels can serve this purpose from the very beginning. The Supreme Courts’ judgement of 2014 ordered that “appropriate curricula be developed at school and college levels to promote a culture of religious and social tolerance.” The judgement also ordered that “the Federal Government should take appropriate steps to ensure that hate speeches in social media are discouraged and the delinquents are brought to justice under the law.” It further expanded and directed that “the Federal Government and all Provincial Governments shall ensure the enforcement of the relevant policy directives regarding reservation of quota for minorities in all services.”

Rights activists have been demanding 5% education quota for the minority students in government colleges, universities and technical training institutions. However, the recent affirmative action by the government of Punjab allocating 2% education quota in universities for the minority students is appreciable as a first step in this regard. Hence, the hope sustains that the current government of Pakistan might adhere and implement the June 19, 2014 verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in letter and spirit. Moreover, as a ruling party will fulfill its commitments made during 2018 elections.

PTI’s manifesto for 2018 elections states that the party will ensure constitutional rights for minorities, it will protect the civil, social and religious rights of minorities; their places of worship, property and institutions as laid down in the Constitution. The manifesto further acknowledge that minorities in Pakistan have consistently been denied their constitutional rights in contradiction to the objective of Quaid-e-Azam’s vision. The result of prevalent and unaccounted-for discrimination against minorities (from all walks of life) has been violence aimed at them, and their poor socioeconomic and human development.

Thus, PTI will have to enact structural reforms to establish a legally empowered, well-resourced and independent National Commission on Minorities, followed by provincial Commissions/Departments. The party will have to ensure equal access to justice and protection from discrimination in matters of law and order to minorities. It will have to act against hate speech and violence towards minorities and ensure that the minority quota in all government departments be implemented in letter and spirit. The party will also have to organize inter-faith dialogue, especially among young people, to promote tolerance and harmony.

Institutionalization of minority rights in Pakistan will help the government at various diplomatic forums to be taken as a serious contender when it comes to upholding the rights of minorities anywhere else in the world, particularly in South Asia. However, it solely depends on the willingness of the state, as it has the foremost obligation to promote, protect and fulfill human rights of minorities in Pakistan, and any human rights institution cannot operate independently under any ministry, and without being a statutory body provided with adequate resources and autonomy.

Photo credit: Reuters.

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