Ostensibly Pakistan is a federal governance structure but practically there are six distinct governance zones. The system of governance in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), PATA (Provincially Administered Tribal Areas), Gilgat-Baltistan, Federal Capital Islamabad, 43 cantonments is different from rest of Pakistan. Within these governance zones the urban-rural divide remains as another divisive factor. This exposes the myth of equality of citizenship in Pakistan. All these areas offer a different set of rights, entitlements and legal protections. Resultantly we have many more mental zones vis-à-vis citizens-state relationship.
The issue of human rights governance in Pakistan is complex. According to the constitutional scheme promotion and protection of human rights is the responsibility of the state. For all practical and operational purposes the Constitution defines it as the federal, provincial and local legislative and executive branches (Article 7). The Constitution entrusts the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the provincial High Courts to adjudicate in case of violations of fundamental rights guaranteed in the social contract.
In terms of institutional design, Pakistan had a full-fledged Ministry of Human Rights at the federal level and corresponding Human Rights Departments in the provinces. However in June 2013 the Federal Ministry for Human Rights was merged with Federal Ministry of Law and Justice. Ostensibly, this was done as an austerity measure. But this development has created an institutional vacuum at the federal level. Pakistan has been awarded GSP-Plus status by the European Union and it is tied to adherence to 27 core conventions related to human rights etc. In this way Federal Ministry of Commerce and Trade has become pretty active to ensure continuation of these trade concessions. An inter-ministerial committee with representations from all the four federating units has been made to coordinate country’s reporting and monitor adherence to these international conventions and commitments. Adherence to international commitments on human rights is a shared responsibility and the country reports on various conventions are prepared by the federal government with data-inputs from the provinces.
In May 2012 the Parliament passed an Act to establish National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), in light of the standards set in Paris Principles. As of today, it has not been fully operationalized. The NCHR is an important institution which besides safeguarding citizens’ rights has to ensure that no law is made in the country that takes away or abridges the fundamental rights. There is a Parliamentary Committee on NCHR to wet appointments to this institution of vital importance. Nevertheless, there is an active Functional Committee on Human Rights in the Senate of Pakistan with a mandate to take-up human rights issues.
Similarly, at least two provinces, namely; Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have passed laws to create their own provincial human rights commissions. In provinces, the Human Rights departments are clubbed in the clusters of Minorities Affair (Punjab), Law and Parliamentary Affairs (Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and Social Welfare and Special Education (Balochistan). Provincial assemblies are empowered to legislate on key human rights and issues pertaining to protection and well-being of women, youth, children and religious minorities in their provinces. The interim constitutional arrangement in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and the autonomy order of Gilgit-Baltistan have bestowed some kind of fundamental rights and there judicial recourse as well. The citizens of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are however entirely excluded. They have not only been denied any kind of constitutionally guaranteed rights, rather judicial mechanisms are also non-existent. This exclusion created chaos that has been exploited by non-state actors. FATA is a case study to understand the cost of denying fundamental rights.
The apex judiciary has come forward to protect fundamental rights of the citizens in the light of constitutional guarantees. There is a Human Rights Cell at the Supreme Court of Pakistan to entertain citizens’ complaints on urgent basis. Similar mechanisms have been established at High Courts in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
All these efforts are at embryonic stage and need hand holding to strengthen the culture of human rights in Pakistan. After devolution, in the wake of the 18th Constitutional Amendment there is lack of clarity about mandate of various institutions at provincial level. Fundamental Human Rights being the responsibility of the state empowers each tier of governance to come up with innovative legislation, effective policy, planning and implementation. Ideally, this space can help provinces address their indigenous and locale bound specific concerns. It can also be an opportunity to embark on a provincial competition to offer the best governance.
Unfortunately, the situation is exactly the opposite as the federal-provincial communication vectors are weak and most of the time they are indulged in useless wars of turf and territory. All this does not auger well for creating an enabling environment for citizens’ rights and efforts to protect their life and liberties.