National and sub-national human rights commissions, established under the Paris Principles, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, are independent institutions responsible for protecting and promoting human rights at the national and regional levels. In simple terms, these commissions act as watchdogs and advocates, who keep a close eye on human rights issues in a country or a region, and have the authority to investigate complaints or reports of human rights violations, and to work to resolve these issues by engaging with the government, raising awareness, and recommending changes to laws, policies and practices.
Pakistan has a number of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) established by an Act of Parliament at the federal level, such as the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and the National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC). Similarly, at the provincial level, there are sub-national commissions such as the Sindh Human Rights Commission (SHRC), the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW), the Punjab Commission Status of Women (PCSW), etc.
While it is commendable that the establishment of commissions in Pakistan demonstrates a commitment to protecting human rights and ensuring accountability, it is equally important to question whether these commissions are effectively fulfilling their mandate. As these commissions primarily operate with public funds, it is important to evaluate their performance and ensure transparency and accountability.
Although NHRIs were established with the intention of being independent institutions, it is important to recognise that their actual independence may be compromised by various challenges and constraints. Both the federal and provincial governments need to carefully consider these issues before establishing more commissions in Pakistan. One of the main problems is that commissions often fall under the purview of a particular ministry or department, which can affect their authority and impartiality, especially when it comes to evaluating and monitoring the actions of government agencies. In order to ensure the effectiveness and real independence of these institutions, it is essential that mechanisms are put in place to grant them adequate autonomy, including financial independence, so that they can effectively exercise their monitoring and oversight functions without any pressure.
The appointment of qualified commissioners is indeed a crucial aspect that requires transparency in the functioning of NHRIs. It is crucial for the credibility and effectiveness of the commissions that the persons appointed to these positions have the necessary qualifications, expertise and a demonstrated commitment to human rights, as they are considered experts.
Another challenge for NHRIs in Pakistan is the existence of cross-cutting issues that fall under the purview of several commissions at the federal and provincial levels. For example, early marriage is an issue that is addressed by both the NCRC and the NCSW and the Provincial Commissions on the Status of Women. This overlap can lead to confusion and duplication of efforts as well as ambiguity.
The lack of formal coordination systems and linkages between federal and provincial commissions, both at the horizontal and vertical levels, exacerbates the challenges faced by NHRIs in Pakistan. For example, when a human rights violation takes place in Sindh, both the NCHR and the SHRC can take notice of it. This can lead to delays in investigations, wastage of resources and lack of access to justice for victims of human rights violations. It is important to establish a referral system through formal agreements between the commissions to enable information sharing, joint investigations and harmonisation of decisions.
In addition, almost all commissions suffer from a lack of resources, including staff shortages and limited programme budgets. Insufficient resources hinder the ability of these institutions to effectively carry out their mandate. The question arises as to why laws are passed without budgeting and institutions are established when there are no funds available and it is a waste of the country’s resources and taxpayers’ money. Then the commissions compete with each other, especially when it comes to getting funds from donor agencies to implement their programmes.
It is worth noting that in Pakistan there is remarkable variation in the powers granted to different commissions under their respective laws. For example, the NCHR has far more powers than other commissions at the federal and provincial levels. However, it does not have the expertise to effectively deal with all human rights issues for which specialised commissions have been established. These different mandates and powers can lead to inconsistencies and confusion in the implementation of human rights protection. In order to ensure a more streamlined and effective system, it is crucial to standardise the powers, functions and responsibilities of each commission and to establish clear guidelines defining their respective roles. Where necessary, existing laws should be reviewed and amended.
It is important for Pakistan to develop a robust and efficient system where all human rights commissions complement each other, leverage their expertise and optimise the use of resources. This would lead to stronger protection of human rights, greater consistency in decision-making and greater public confidence in the institutions responsible for upholding and promoting human rights across the country.
The author is the Executive Director of OBUN2, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org