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Civil society’s rights

The latest moves to regulate non-government organisations (NGOs) need to be approached with a due sense of responsibility as they touch upon some of the fundamental rights of civil society.

The interior minister has disclosed that the task of registering NGOs has been transferred from the Economic Affairs Division to his ministry. This decision is said to have been taken on the report of Mr Tariq Fatemi, the prime minister’s special assistant on foreign affairs. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan is also quoted as saying that the laws for the registration of NGOs are vague and that a new single law is needed to ensure proper accountability and transparency.

It seems the interior minister was referring to the international non-government organisations (INGOs) that have lately lost favour with the administration. This cannot be said about the national NGOs because the laws for their registration and accountability are pretty clear. Perhaps the prime minister also had INGOs in mind because in that case his choice of a foreign affairs hand to probe the matter could make sense.

We cannot afford to move against the current for recognition of civil society’s right to confront the state. Be that as it may, before moving any further the government should make the Tariq Fatemi report public. The people must know the grounds for action that apparently targets both local and foreign NGOs. The government must be cautioned against being carried away by the smear campaign against INGOs that has been carried on by vested interests. Most of them have been rendering humanitarian assistance to the people or helping them realise their rights. Instead of vilifying these INGOs Pakistan should be grateful to them.

One should like to hope that the decision to put the interior ministry in command of the entire NGO sector is open to review. Even the INGOs need not be judged from the security angle alone and neither the Economic Affairs Division nor the Foreign Office should be excluded from the decision-making process concerning them. But the idea of putting national civil society organisations (CSOs) under the control of the interior ministry sounds quite preposterous.

It is no secret that the law-enforcement bodies, especially the police and the intelligence agencies, are responsible for most of the violations of human rights by the state. Putting the CSOs, especially those working for human rights, at the mercy of the same forces will amount to appointing the proverbial wolf to guard the sheep.

Traditionally, the government has been favourably disposed towards charitable enterprises. Even the shady ones among them. It is happy with organisations that relieve the state of its responsibility for opening schools or establishing hospitals, but it has a problem with organisations that try to uphold the rights of the people. Those who speak for women’s right to education, or their economic independence, or their political rights are accused of working against Pakistan’s social values. Anyone who demands justice for the minority communities is branded a foreign agent.

The anti-rights lobby in this country argues that monitoring of human rights violations, organising protests against enforced disappearances, and focusing on extralegal killings are anti-national activities. It is perhaps necessary to remind them of what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said two years ago: “If leaders do not listen to their people, they will hear from them — on the streets, the square, or, as we see far too often, on the battlefield. There is a better way. More participation. More democracy. More engagement and openness. That means maximum space for civil society.”

Pakistan cannot afford to move against the worldwide current for recognition of civil society’s right to confront the state, to ensure that the state does not transgress the terms of its foundational compact with the people. Today, the United Nations is pleading for space for not only CSOs but also for civil society actors, ie individuals who work as human rights defenders. They do not need any registration. The very first article of the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders says: “Everyone has the right individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.”

The timing for an assault on the CSOs also is wrong. The government cannot be unaware of the several calls on it to increase the space it allows to civil society. The pressure on it to implement the directions contained in the Supreme Court judgment of June 2014 is growing day by day, particularly since it has aroused the expectations of the beleaguered minorities.

The government is also required to fulfil its commitment to comply with the GSP Plus condition of implementing 27 international conventions. And it is expected to allow the recently created National Commission for Human Rights a level playing field. What will the commission do if policemen are given authority to regiment civil society organisations?

The debate on civil society-state relationship is unlikely to conclude soon and at the moment it would be sufficient to warn the government against any attempt to curtail the space for CSOs. It will be counterproductive.

Tailpiece: TV channels have reported that the relevant rules have been relaxed to sanction licences for prohibited bore firearms to the prime minister and a son of the president. Both are humbly requested to give up these licences for the following reasons:

  1. Their lack of confidence in the high-level security provided to them by the state is evident. If they need sophisticated weapons, what will ordinary citizens do about their security?
  2. Securing prohibited bore weapons for personal safety is like starting an arms race with terrorists who have better chances of getting deadlier weapons than even privileged Pakistanis.
  3. It is a fundamental principle of good governance that rules are not bent in favour of persons who have the power to frame them and who are supposed to set a model for ordinary citizens.

I. A. Rehman, "Civil society’s rights," Dawn. 2015-06-25.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Social issues , Social security , Social needs , Enforcement law , Human rights , Supreme court , Political rights , Women rights , Civil society , Decision making , Society-Pakistan , Ch Nisar Ali , Tariq Fatemi , Pakistan , NGOs , CSO , GSP+ , TV