Human Rights Watch says Pakistan's National Human Rights Commission can "play a critical role in improving Pakistan's dire human rights situation" if it can investigate abuse by the military and intelligence agencies.
Pakistan's army and the country’s intelligence agencies, particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have long been accused of grave human rights violations in the country.
However, to the dismay of many observers, the country's military and its spy agencies remain beyond the reach of Pakistan's criminal justice system.
Earlier this month, the lower house of parliament passed a bill to promote and protect human rights in Pakistan - the National Human Rights Commission Act.
However, rights groups say that the proposed law, which needs the president’s approval before it can come into effect, does not go far enough.
"Pakistan's military and its intelligence agencies have a long and well-documented history of serious systematic abuses," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia head, in a statement on Thursday. "A primary reason to create a national human rights commission should be to address longstanding impunity for the army and intelligence services."
'A state within a state'
Human rights organizations have long criticized the ISI for acting as "a state within a state," even kidnapping political and social activists with impunity. The Pakistani government has acknowledged some 400 cases of missing people, allegedly picked up by intelligence operatives on suspicion of "anti-state" activities. Pakistani activists put the number of missing persons at over 1,000.
Last year, HRW expressed its dissatisfaction over the findings of a judicial commission set up to investigate the murder of Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist who was kidnapped and then killed in May 2011, which the rights watchdog categorically blames on the ISI.
The commission ruled out the ISI's exclusive involvement in Shahzad's kidnapping and assassination and concluded that there could be a number of players behind his death, including the state, militant groups linked to the Taliban, al Qaeda and unnamed "foreign actors."
Many of those picked up illegally are thought to be members of the Pakistani Taliban, operating in the restive northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or members of Baluch insurgent groups operating in the western province of Baluchistan that borders Iran.
Ghazi Salahuddin, a Karachi-based journalist and human rights activist, told DW that despite the ISI's perceived omnipotence, the Pakistani people had begun to question the agency's political role, as had some politicians.
"A few months ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said in his address to parliament that the ISI was acting as ‘a state within a state,’" he explained, adding that no Pakistani civilian leader had ever said such a thing.
There were other signs of “civilian supremacy,” he said. “The Supreme Court is hearing the case about missing persons, who are allegedly picked up by the ISI, and for the first time the military agencies are being questioned about their constitutional jurisdiction."
Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research thinks that the current political conditions in Pakistan are such that a strong civilian government could hold the military and its agencies accountable.
"Two days ago, the Peshawar High Court ordered the Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to court marshal military personnel who are accused of rights violations," he cited as one example of recent developments.
Many pro-military and right-wing groups in Pakistan accuse international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch of interfering in Pakistan's domestic issues.
Ali rejects such criticism: "It is the responsibility of every citizen of the world to raise their voice against human rights violations that are perpetrated anywhere in the world."
Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Anne Thomas