LAHORE: People’s Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) and Center for Social Justice (CSJ) held a People’s Assembly on minorities’ rights, safeguards and policy actions, and thoroughly discussed the draft bill for establishing a National Commission for Minorities, and Prohibition of Forced Conversion Bill, 2021.
Former Punjab minister Ijaz Alam Augustine, and former lawmakers Tariq Gill and Shehzad Ilahi also took part in the proceedings. They made a pledge to fully support the bills in the provincial assembly for setting up the minority rights commission and criminalizing forced conversions.
A working group led by Justice (retired) Nasira Javed Iqbal, Center for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jacob, Justice (retired) Mehta Kailash Nath Kohli, Advocate Saroop Ijaz, Dr Riaz Sheikh, Dr AH Nayyar, Rubina Feroze Bhatti, Fatima Atif, Lubna Jarar, and Maria Iqbal Tarana presented a review of the draft bills.
Welcoming the bill, Peter Jacob 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 this national commission along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Also, he said the cabinet must be involved in appointing and removing members of the commission.
He shared the data regarding questionable conversions involving girls and women from minorities and revealed that at least 124 incidents in the year 2022 were reported which included 81 Hindus, 42 Christians, and one Sikh. As many as 66% of cases were reported in Sindh, followed by 40% in Punjab, and one case each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Ijaz Augustine lamented that the progressive laws dealing with child marriage and forced faith conversions were prevented by religious groups and bureaucracy. He said that the improvement in human rights situation was only possible, if human rights violations were adequately addressed.
Former Punjab Assembly member Shehzad Ilahi said that the legislators and standing committees need to consider all bills that can contribute to improving rights of women and minorities. Former provincial lawmaker Tariq Gill said that the stakeholders need to make joint efforts, and press legislators to introduce policy actions to address issues that minorities face.
Dr Riaz Ahmed Sheikh said that a bill against forced conversions must be considered by the assembly, and marriage and conversion of girls below 18 years should be banned to protect their childhood from abuse and child rights. Kailash Nath Kohli said that religious groups were increasing their influence in education fields and assemblies.
He said that child marriage has to be prevented to fix a legal marriageable age at 18 years for both girls and boys, and the bill to criminalize forced conversions should be a priority of the federal and provincial governments. Dr AH Nayyar said that human rights institutions must protect minorities rights to strengthen laws and policies that affect marginalized groups.
The PCMR observed that it welcomed the long-awaited National Commission for Minorities Bill, 2023, tabled in the National Assembly. After examining the bill, they 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 national constitution. Hence, they 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 Ahmadiyya representation has been missed out entirely, it should not be presumed that Ahmadiyya 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 the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR).
Fifthly, they 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 the parliament rather than a selection committee, and it should present an annual report to the parliament rather than the president.