Uncertain Future Of Pakistan’s Minority Rights Commission – OpEd


Once again, the formation of a minority commission was delayed as the proposed bill was dropped on 9 April.

After a long wait, the previous government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif presented the “National Commission for Minorities Bill, 2023” at the National Assembly, which was passed on 7 August. However, the bill was a disappointment for minorities and the members of the civil society as the government did not include their recommendations and ignored the directions of the Supreme Court. Therefore, they rejected the bill as it was against the basic principles of human rights. 

The Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights (JAC – a network of 37 human rights and development organisations) opposed the bill and demanded for a compressive bill according to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment.

JAC stated: “The bill was passed, manifests gaps, which need to be addressed to make the prospective minority rights body truly functional, and effective, independent, autonomous, and resourceful institution.”

A Christian journalist, Sameer Ajmal, said that it was sad that the government ignored the concerns of human rights organisations and presented a controversial bill in the parliament. Although the bill was introduced after 9 years of Jilani judgment, it did not address the real issue rather created controversy.  

After getting the approval of the National Assembly, the government was supposed to present the bill in the Senate on 9 August. Surprisingly, the bill was not on the Senate’s agenda on that day – during the last session of the

Senate before the dissolution of assemblies. It seemed that the controversial bill was dropped to avoid any father controversy and to attract minority voters for the forthcoming elections.

Peter Jacob, Executive Director of Centre for Social Justice (CSJ, based in Lahore), said the bill was not tabled in the Senate only because of the opposition of civil society, but there were signs of discontent of some prominent Senators of the government’s coalition partners.

After the twin suicide attack, during the Sunday prayer service, at All Saints Church in Peshawar, in which about 127 Christians were killed and more than 250 injured, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Tassaduq Hussain Jillani took sou moto notice and came up with a landmark judgment on 19 June 2014 (SMC No. 1 of 2014). Along with other directions, the court asked the government to form an independent minority rights commission to ensure the protection of the fundamental rights of vulnerable minority communities, including Christians and Hindus.   

The apex court directed the government to establish the 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.”

Since then, minorities have been campaigning for instituting a statutory ‘National Commission for Minorities Rights,’ which Pakistan has pledged under international treaties. There is a need for a dynamic minority rights body, and introduction of an effective mechanism for the safety of minority communities. 

For years, the governments ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling, but took some ad-hoc measures to eyewash minorities who make up about 5 percent of the total population of 220 million people of the country.

“We wish that the government had learnt from the past experiments, and the issues faced by the minorities’ commissions,” Irfan Mufti, Convener of the Joint Action Committee said.

Meanwhile, Suddle’s commission was established by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in January 2019 in the light of the apex court’s landmark judgment of 2014. Dr. Shoaib Suddle is the chairman of One-Man Commission for Minority Rights. Minorities say, “The Commission purely works on judicial orders, so it is not a substitute to a permanent minority commission.”  

On 11 May 2020, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) was notified by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony (MRAIH), which was approved by the cabinet of Prime Minister Imran Khan on 5 May.

Pakistan’s civil society organisations, lawyers, and media persons across the country opposed the body, because it was established through the executive order rather than the act of Parliament. It was said that the government tried to mislead public opinion by creating a toothless body for minorities through a cabinet decision. The former Senate chairman Mian Raza Rabbani declared it illegal, as its formation was in violation of the Supreme Court’s judgment.

There were six official and 12 non-official members on the commission. Chela Ram Kewlani, a Hindu by faith, and a leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the then ruling party, had been appointed as the chairman of the commission, who served the commission for a three-year term. Minority rights organisations demanded that the chairman should be a neutral person rather than a member of the ruling party.

Furthermore, its members’ selection criteria were not transparent. There was no representation of Schedule Casts, who formed the biggest section of the Hindu community in Pakistan.

Minorities demanded that the commission should be an autonomous body as the National Commission on Human Rights, the National Commission on the Status of Women, and the Commission on the Rights of the Child

A Christian political leader Sarfraz Clement said, “The commission failed to resolve minority issues because its formation was disputed from day one.”

Interestingly, two members of the commission were Muslim. The six official members were from various ministries, all Muslims, and the chairman of the Islamic Council of Ideology (ICI) was also Muslim. Minority leaders’ objection was that if a non-Muslim cannot be part of the Islamic Ideology Council, a constitutional body, then why include Muslim members in the minority commission. They claimed that the inclusion of Muslims and bureaucrats undermined the representation of minorities.

The members of the commission belonged to Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Parsi and Kalash communities. The three Christian members of the commission were: Roman Catholic Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw of Lahore, Prof. Dr. Sarah Safdar, and Albert David. In 2021, Archbishop Shaw resigned from the commission after complaining that the body was unable to address the concerns of minorities.

Minority Rights Group International said on 2 June 2020 that 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.

However, that commission’s term ended in May this year.  

After ousting Imran Khan, minorities once again started lobbying with the new government for an inclusive law for the formation of the commission.

In January 2023, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif indicated that a bill to form a minority commission was underway.

Minorities and other human rights groups presented their recommendation for the bill of the commission. Considering one of the demands, in February, Minister for Finance Muhammad Ishaq Dar introduced the National Commission for Minorities Bill to raise the number of minority members from 12 to 29. But minorities were disappointed when the bill was presented in the National Assembly. 

Their objection was that the composition of the commission was objectionable as there was no guarantee of the sufficient representation of all minority communities.

For any future commission, the civil society demands that the appointment to the 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.

Furthermore, 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.

Human rights groups said that, until now, Pakistan had failed to establish a mechanism to ensure the protection of minority rights. Therefore, an independent commission is urgently needed to provide protection to those who don’t have equal access to education, health care, and jobs, etc.  Often, they face violence and are subjected to persecution because of their faith.

As the current bill was dropped from the Senate’s agenda and the National Assembly has been dissolved for the next general elections, which are supposed to be held in November this year. Minorities have to wait to see that the new government would present – either the same bill to the Parliament or a new one. There are fears that the next government might ignore this issue once again as it was ignored for the last 9 years. 

However, some people are optimistic that the new government would consider the demands of minorities and would introduce a comprehensive bill for an effective, independent, and autonomous commission. 

For decades, minorities have been raising voices for the need of a minority commission for the protection of their rights. Therefore, the first minority commission was constituted in 1990 by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government. Later, it was re-formed several times with changing governments.

Aftab Alexander Mughal

Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of Minority Concern of Pakistan, and can be reached at: [email protected]

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