August 11, 2023
By Xari Jalil
Pressure from civil society has led to the Senate dropping a government-drafted minorities’ bill after several objections were raised against it. Civil society activists said that several basic guidelines were being violated including the UN Paris Principles as well as former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Tasadduq Husain Jillani’s judgement of 2014.
On August 8 the Joint Action Committee (JAC) had already expressed its dissatisfaction on the passing of the bill called the National Commission for Minorities Bill 2023 from the National Assembly.
JAC representatives said that the bill manifested gaps, which needed to be addressed to make the prospective minority rights body truly functional, and effective, independent, autonomous, and resourceful minority rights institution.
Speaking to Voicepk.net, Suneel Malik from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a minority rights organization, said that despite several recommendations being given to the government, they were not given any importance.
“The Bill has been lying in the national assembly since February, and we have been giving our perspectives and our recommendations since then,” he said. “However since the past few weeks several bills have been hurriedly passed, and this too was one of them.”
It landed in the Senate but after meetings were held between civil society and political leaders including Farhatullah Babar, Sherry Rehman and some minority members of the Senate, the bill was finally dropped from the Senate on August 9.
“It is better if the Bill is re-tabled from scratch, which it will be anyway since the assembly is now dissolved,”
What are the issues?
Meanwhile another minority rights activist Nabila Feroze Bhatti said that there were several issues with the Bill.
“First of all, the fact that it was a Bill calling the entity a ‘Minority Commission’ when in fact it should have been called a Minority Rights Commission,” she said. “The body is meant to be a rights body, not a religious body. Secondly, there was the fact that it had the interference of government officials, and especially the intervention of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) and the Evacuee Trust Board – something which none of the other commissions face.”
The Evacuee Trust Board is the section which deals with the properties of the Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and other religious minorities.
She added that the Jillani judgement had stated that the body must be independent and autonomous but with the interference of these departments, this was not so. “Resource allocations are also not specified in the bill.”
In the JAC statement it was also specified that MORA, since 1990, had formed ad-hoc commissions which failed to make any progress towards policy reforms and redressing complaints related to minorities’ rights, because they lacked a sound legal basis, broad mandate and competence, independence and autonomy, and adequate powers and resources.
In the 2014 Jillani judgement, the government was directed to establish a minority rights institution with a mandate “to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the Constitution and law, and frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights”.
In the past also, CSJ has raised a similar issue with the commission being formed. It was specified that the commission should consist of four Hindus, two each from the upper castes and scheduled castes, and four Christians, one each from the provinces as members to incorporate provincial representation. The representation of Christians on the basis of denominations and Hindus on the basis of caste identity cannot be a qualification, therefore, appointments should be made on merit, considering the minorities commission a human rights institution, not a religious body.
There is also a demand to include representation of smaller religious communities to ensure the reflection of the religious diversity in the composition of the minorities’ commission, however, one seat for Sikhs rather than three seats would be appropriate in proportion to their small population.
It is a tradition already set to incorporate ex-officio representation in national human rights institutions (NHRI). Therefore, the minorities’ commission should have one representative each from the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), and the National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC). This arrangement would serve to strengthen NHRI’s work, build synergies and avoid overlap. A representative from the Ministry of Finance should also be included for better resource allocation.
Importantly, one-third female participation must be mandatory amongst the non-official representation, as well as, the official representation.
The demands also include that appointment to the minority rights body should be through parliament rather than a selection committee, and it should present an annual report to the parliament rather than the President of Pakistan.
Assigning minorities’ commission the work regarding places of worship is beyond its mandate as it will be a departure from the functions of the national human rights institution. Moreover, it is the work of the communities, local administration, and other government bodies.
“One of our biggest concerns is that this Bill should have come from the Ministry of Human Rights not the Ministry of Religious Affairs,” said Nabila.
“All other commissions have their bills from the MOHR. This is not a religious body, it’s a rights body. If the civil society’s recommendations are not accepted, then this commission will only be paving for government interference and a failure to protect minorities’ rights.”