Peter Jacob 
Friday, September 12, 2014
From Print Edition

Senator Raza Rabbani tried to add some solid substance to the discussion at the joint parliamentary session. He presented fourteen points to be used as a basis for a convention that he suggested should be drafted and adopted to guide the democratic transition through.

So we might witness the birth of another normative instrument. Rabbani’s fourteen points were about building further on the Charter of Democracy of 2006 and reiteration of democratic standards such as federalism, multiculturalism, religious tolerance and guarantees for the rights of different sections of society in Pakistan.

Citizens’ rights are a subject of great discussion on media and other public forums, though usually to press upon one or the other point of view about the ongoing political conflict. The demands for reforms in different areas of the political system gained momentum after the revolutionary marches encamped in Islamabad on August 14.

There is hardly any area of reform that has not been discussed over the decades. Some reforms have been tried without much success, for example agricultural reforms, while other have been blocked or reverted like juvenile justice and police reforms. To see what obstructs us from moving forward on the rights and reforms agenda, let us look at two examples of normative development in the recent past and the implementation thereof.

The 18th constitutional amendment is widely and justly admired for bringing stability to parliamentary democracy by taking away the president and governors’ powers to dismiss a government(s). Giving more autonomy to the provinces was another hallmark. Unfortunately, though, this amendment left several legislative and operative gaps and so the transfer of powers (and functions) from the federal to the provincial governments remains elusive four years after the amendment was passed. Was the legislative process able to accord the gravity and wisdom that matched the ideals of democracy? This precisely is the question we need to ponder upon.

The Parliamentary Committee for Constitutional Reforms formed in 2009 failed to alter its composition of only male-Muslim membership during its term of reference. Had the committee manifested a capacity to deal with the factors that forced its discriminatory composition, it might have also dealt with the challenge of its subsequent underperformance. The committee, consisting of 26 members, representing the parties in parliament failed also to accommodate any input from the civil society in the constitutional review process. Once again, the practice failed to match all the verbose preaching about democratic participation.

The devolution of ministries and respective departments required under the 18th Amendment became an uphill task in practice. Some of these, related to welfare and protection of women, children and minorities, are currently rather dysfunctional. This happened due to the absence of a clear mechanism for oversight, time frame and dispute resolution among the government entities. The committee could have easily foreseen and responded to these issues. A review of the devolution of ministries carried out by the Karachi-based Social Policy and Development Centre in 2012 shows clearly how the half-hearted commitment of the political parties failed to achieve desired result, albeit loud claims.

The term ‘federalism’ has become popular instead of ‘devolution of powers’ or ‘decentralisation of power’. The choice of language together with stalled progress in the past six years on establishing local governments explains the behaviour of political stakeholders, who are insisting on their sensibility to a bottom- upwards approach yet defiant on holding local bodies elections.

Parliament passed a law for constituting a National Human Rights Commission in 2012 that had been pending in the National Assembly since 2004. In the meantime, the number of countries with such commissions increased to 130 from 56 as nations found these commissions helpful in checking human rights abuses. In our case, the law was passed 32 months ago yet incumbent governments did not set up the commission. By 2014 we should have set up such commissions at the provincial level but political will seems to be missing here as well.

The proposition of a new normative instrument is relevant if the instrument can remove existing conceptual ambiguities and add the necessary dimension of commitment to human rights and equality of citizens. For instance, a reiteration of the principle of non-discrimination will not suffice if the new norm does not ensure banning discrimination, compensating victims and punishing violators.

Reiteration of commitment to the rights of children and women will remain a hollow claim if it does not provide for effective mechanism for enforcement and implementation of rights. Still, if the proposed convention can provide ways and means, for instance, of controlling crimes against women and children by making institutions and individuals accountable for lapses, passing a convention will be meaningful progress. It will not become redundant for lack of implementation.

A new instrument should address the serious flaws in the existing norms rather than merely addressing the current political crisis. We must remember that we stand where we are because we have not yet acknowledged the dignity of human beings and supremacy of human rights in our national legislation unconditionally and equally. Concepts such as respect for pluralism, multiculturalism and diversity are alien to the constitution of Pakistan. Therefore, besides adding norms, the new instrument should help inform how the imminent structural and sectoral reforms will be made to deliver this time.

Imbedded discrimination in the convention or loophole thereto, would not strengthen rule of law because discrimination in law aborts justice in the outset. While presenting a counter-narrative to undemocratic forces and their behaviour is necessary, the convention should also address and reflect a genuine commitment to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights.

Parliament can harness this historic opportunity born from a political crisis to take the country forward on the path to human development. Voices such as Rabbani’s should not be lost in the political wilderness. Nevertheless, those with vigour and wisdom in parliament would have to invest their energies in taking steps to build consensus and take civil society on board.

The PML-N government should also bring forward their best and fill administrative gaps such as appointment of a full-time federal minister for law, justice and human rights whose role can never be underestimated.

Courtesy: Daily Times, Pakistan