ISLAMABAD: The federal government has decided to make the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) functional and remove the cap on the maximum age for the chair of the human rights watchdog.
Some experts have questioned the timing of the decision, since the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly must consult to appoint the commission’s chair and members as leader of the opposition MNA Mian Shehbaz Sharif is currently under arrest while the opposition has also announced a campaign to remove the government.
On Sept 28, the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights, chaired by PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, observed that the government has deliberately kept the NCHR and the National Commission on the Rights of the Child dysfunctional.
The committee directed the ministries of law and human rights to address this matter within two weeks.
Appointment of chair, members could still be delayed due to arrest of opposition leader
According to a public notice from the Ministry of Human Rights, applications have been invited for the appointments of a chairperson, members from Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Islamabad, as well as a member to represent religious minorities.
A person who has been or is qualified to be a Supreme Court judge or has demonstrable knowledge of matters related to human rights is eligible for the post of chairperson, while members may not be below the age of 40 and should have experience and knowledge relating to human rights.
All the members will work on a full-time basis and those who have applied previously are advised to do so again.
The four-year tenure of former NCHR chairman retired Justice Ali Nawaz Chohan and the members expired on May 30, 2019, and the commission – which has suo motu powers - has not been revived since.
Pakistan established the NCHR in compliance with international obligations. The NCHR Act stipulates a broad and overarching mandate for the promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights as provided for in the Constitution and international treaties.
As an impartial state body, the NCHR works independently of the government and is directly accountable to parliament.
The NCHR’s financial and performance reports are also directly presented to the parliament for approval on an annual basis.
Advertisements for these posts were first publicised in March, with April 14, 2019, the last date to file applications.
The process was completed and names were shortlisted, but an objection was raised while the matter was being discussed by the cabinet, arguing that the government had give its permission for the advertisements and according to a Supreme Court order the government means the cabinet.
Permission was sought from cabinet to advertise the posts and new advertisements were published on Sept 22, 2019, with Oct 6, 2019, as the final date for submission.
The first advertisement placed a limit on the minimum age – 40 years – but none for the maximum age. The second advertisement said the chairperson could not be older than 65 years.
Mr Chohan, the former NCHR chairman, challenged this in the Islamabad High Court, delaying the appointments further.
The government has now removed the maximum age limit, and is expected to make the commission functional again soon.
A Ministry of Human Rights official who asked not to be named said that although applications have been invited, the environment is not suitable for appointments.
“The prime minister and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly will have to reach to a consensus and finalise three names for the post of chairman and three names for each post of members and those names will be forwarded to a parliamentary committee for the finalisation of names for posts.
“If they fail to develop consensus they will send the names to parliamentary committee on their own. Currently, the leader of the opposition is in jail and the process of consultation may be delayed,” he said.
The former member from Islamabad, Chaudhry Mohammad Shafique, said that the process of appointments should be expedited to make the body functional as early as possible.
Mr Chohan said that this is a positive development, but too much time has been wasted making the decision.
“NCHR was a functional body but was made dysfunctional. Nowadays there are so many human rights issues and even the European Union had shown concerns over the dysfunctional NCHR. Once the forum will be made functional, Pakistan will be able to raise the issue of Indian occupied Kashmir with 160 similar human rights bodies across the globe,” he said.
He said that across the world, these forums are run by judges instead of bureaucrats as most cases of human rights violations are filed against the bureaucracy, police and other departments. He argued that for this reason only a judge could provide justice to the public.
Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2020