Lahore: Peoples Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) and Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) held a Peoples Assembly on “Minorities Rights: Safeguards and Policy Actions” drawing representation from across the country that thoroughly discussed the draft bill for establishing a National Commission for Minorities, and Prohibition of Forced Conversion Bill, 2021.
Former Minister, Ijaz Alam Augustine, Former MPA Tariq Gill and Former MPA Shehzad Ilahi also took part in the proceedings. The minority legislators made a pledge to fully support the bills for setting up the minority rights commission and criminalizing forced faith conversions in the legislative assembly.
A working group led by Justice (R) Nasira Javed Iqbal, Peter Jacob, Justice (R) Mehta Kailash Nath Kohli, Saroop Ijaz Advocate, Dr. Riaz Sheikh, Dr. A. H. Nayyar, Rubina Feroze Bhatti, Fatima Atif, Lubna Jarar, and Maria Iqbal Tarana presented a review of the draft bills.
Peter Jacob welcomed the bill introduced by the government, and proposed that the body should be called National Commission for minorities rights so that it does not seem to be a religious institution, and NCHR, NCSW, NCRC should have representation in the National Commission for Minorities along with the foreign Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Cabinet must be involved in appointing and removing members. He share the data regarding questionable conversions involving girls/women from minority communities which reveal that at least 124 incidents in the year 2022 were reported in Pakistan which included 81 Hindu, 42 Christian, and one Sikh. 66% of cases were reported in Sindh, followed by 40% in Punjab, and one case each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Former Minister Ijaz Alam Augustine lamented that the progressive laws dealing with child marriage and forced faith conversions are prevented by religious groups and bureaucracy. The improvement in human rights situation is only possible, if human rights violations are adequately addressed.
Former MPA Shehzad Alahi said that the legislators and standing committees need to consider all bills that can contribute to improving the situation of women rights and minorities’ rights.
Former MPA, Tariq Gill said that the stakeholders need to make joint efforts, and press legislators to introduce policy actions to address outstanding issues that minorities face.
Dr. Riaz Ahmed Sheikh said that a bill against forced conversions must be considered by the legislative assembly, and marriage and conversion of girls below 18 years should be banned to protect their childhood from abuse and child rights.
Justice (R) Kailash Nath Kohli said that religious groups are increasing their influence in education fields and legislative assemblies. He added that child marriage has to be prevented to fix a legal marriageable age at 18 years for both girls and boys, and bill to criminalize forced conversions should be a priority of the federal and provincial governments as religious groups are involved in this practice, and they get away with their crimes, which is injustice.
Dr. A. H. Nayyar said that human rights institutions to protect minorities rights is imperative to strengthen laws and policies that affect religious minorities.
The PCMR observed that it welcomed the long-awaited National Commission for Minorities Bill, 2023 tabled in the national assembly. After examining the bill, we would like to offer some suggestions to make improvements. Firstly, the bill to establish a minority rights body should be called National Commission for Minorities Rights (NCMR) to make the perspective clear. Secondly, it ought to be a human rights institution rather than a religious minority’s parallel of any other state institution.
Thirdly, the representation of ‘minorities’ in the composition part (section 3(3)) of the National Commission for Minorities Bill is in conflict with the definition of minorities mentioned in Article 260 3(b) of the constitution of Pakistan. Hence, we propose that while including the diversity of religious groups, its composition should enable respect and realization of human rights, therefore, it must reduce government representation and influence as well as reduce the religious divide or cancel the possibility to promote favorites among minorities or neglect others. The Ahmadi representation has been missed out entirely, it should not be presumed that Ahmadis do not need representation or will not be willing to join this body.
Fourthly, the term ‘convener’ used in (section 4(4)) is not defined in the definition part, and it lacks the mention of international laws in the definition of ‘human rights’ mentioned in (section 2(e)). Therefore, it is in conflict with the law and National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR).
Fifthly, we propose that the term ‘Muslims’ (section 3(h)) should be replaced with human rights experts from civil society. However, the 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 (section 24 (2)).