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Call for revision of National Human Rights Commission law

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, May 17, 2012 - President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan should not sign a bill creating a national human rights commission until it is revised to authorize investigations of the military and the intelligence agencies for human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. The National Human Rights Commission Act was passed by the National Assembly on May 4, 2012, but requires presidential assent to go into effect.

"The National Human Rights Commission if given teeth can play a critical role in improving Pakistan's dire human rights situation," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "President Zardari should tell parliament he will only sign the bill when it gives the commission authority over abuses by the military and intelligence agencies."

The bill creating the National Human Rights Commission contains many positive elements to promote and protect human rights in Pakistan, Human Rights Watch said. The commission would be an independent body, with members appointed by a cross-party parliamentary committee. Its responsibilities would include monitoring the general human rights situation in Pakistan, investigating specific human rights violations, making recommendations to the government, and assisting individual Pakistanis whose rights have been violated. The commission would have the legal authority to summon witnesses and obtain documents, including government documents.

However, Human Rights Watch expressed strong concerns that the current bill would prevent the commission from addressing or investigating human rights violations by members of the armed forces and intelligence agencies.

In instances of allegations against the armed forces, the commission would only be mandated to seek a report from the federal government. After it received the report, it would only be able to recommend further action to the government. It would have no powers of direct investigation into these cases.

The commission also would be virtually powerless to investigate any allegation of abuse related to an intelligence agency, Human Rights Watch said. Section 15 of the proposed law states that the "functions of the commission do not include inquiring into the act or practice of intelligence agencies." Should a complaint be made to the commission alleging an agency act or practice "inconsistent with or contrary to any human right, the commission shall refer the complaint to the competent authority concerned," the bill says.

"Pakistan's military and its intelligence agencies have a long and well-documented history of serious and systematic abuses," Adams said. "A primary reason to create a national human rights commission should be to address longstanding impunity for the army and intelligence services."

The bill is contrary to the Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions, known as the Paris Principles, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Paris Principles in 1993 to create international standards for the operation of national human rights commissions. The Paris Principles set out that a national human rights commission must be free to consider any questions falling within its competence, whether submitted by the government or taken up by the commission without referral from a governmental authority, on the proposal of its members or of any petitioner. Further, such an institution must be empowered to hear any person and obtain any information and any documents necessary for assessing situations falling within its competence.

Human Rights Watch called on Pakistan's parliament to revise the National Human Rights Commission Act to comply with the Paris Principles to ensure that the commission emerges as a truly independent and empowered protector and promoter of human rights.

"A strong and independent National Human Rights Commission can be a key institution in aiding Pakistan's transition to a truly rights-respecting democracy," Adams said. "But a commission that cannot take on cases involving the army and intelligence agencies would perpetuate a cruel joke on Pakistanis whose rights have been violated."

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