On 17 November 2016, the Sindh Assembly enacted a law establishing a provincial commission tasked with the “promotion and protection of rights of minorities”. Titled the Sindh Minority Rights Commission, the statutory body has been granted a broad spectrum of powers of fact-finding, research, investigation and review that will enable it to act as platform for addressing grievances of minority communities and to accelerate their socio-economic development at the provincial level. The Commission will comprise of 12 members nominated by the government out of which 7 including the Chairperson will belong to a religious minority.

Since the establishment of the National Commission on the Status of Women in July 2000, Pakistan has experimented with several public bodies tasked with assisting the Government with the implementation of human rights under the Constitution and under international law either generally or for specific vulnerable groups. The most prolific of these statutory bodies is the National Commission on Human Rights that was established vide the National Commission on Human Rights Act in 2012. However almost four years following its establishment the NCHR is still struggling to fulfil its mandate amidst inadequate budgetary allocation and lack of cooperation from the executive machinery with regards to its recommendations. Statutory bodies tasked with the protection of human rights provide convenient examples of fulfilment of human rights commitments at international forums such as the United Nations state reviews, however, their actual impact on the ground leaves much to be desired.

The Sindh Minority Rights Commission follows a rather unfortunate predecessor. In December 2014, the Government of Pakistan informed the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a hearing on the compliance with the Court’s decision on minority rights, that it had established a National Commission for Minorities which had held its first meeting that month. However, since then no record exists regarding the functioning and/or membership of this elusive Commission. The Government of Pakistan has, in contrast, relied upon its existence in the various state reports it has submitted under UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, in contradiction to its own stance, in February 26 the Government in its “National Action Plan on Human Rights” committed to enacting a law by December 2016 that would establish a National Commission for Minority Rights. As a result, the Government of Pakistan itself conceded that such a Commission never even existed.

Time will only tell how the Sindh Minority Rights Commission will persevere. Perhaps its success will stem from its status as a provincial commission rather than one with a national mandate. The Province of Sindh has recently made admirable strides in legislation on safeguarding the rights of minorities. The enactment of the Hindu Marriage Act, 2016 finally provided legal cover and therefore protection to marriages of Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians. However, the situation on the ground remains largely unaffected. Minorities face violence and persecution almost on a daily basis and perpetrators enjoy virtual impunity from even the gravest of violations. Women from religious communities in interior Sindh are frequently kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. Estimates from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan place forced conversion of Hindu girls to at least 20 to 25 every day. Minorities are accorded quotas in provincial and national legislatures, however, representatives appointed to these seats are merely loyalists to leading political parties. As a result issues effecting minorities are accorded no political urgency and ignored by law makers.

The Sindh Minority Rights Commission, may act as a bridge between lawmakers and members of the vulnerable communities if accorded the opportunity to operate to its full potential. The Government must firstly ensure that appointments to the commission, particularly of the Chairperson, are not dismissed as incentives to loyal party worker but rather given to experienced human rights experts with a proven track record in the implementation of the rights of minorities. Additionally the commission must be given an adequate budget and a place of business in order to equip it to fulfil its mandate effectively. The Commission must also consulted on all laws that effect minorities and must co-author all relevant state reports on human rights compliance to the United Nations Treaty Bodies. Only if all these recommendations are complied with will the new Commission be an effective watch dog over the rights of minorities.