Ali Nawaz Chowhan made a decision nearly three years ago that he thought threatened his life. It was May 2015, and he had been chief justice in The Gambia for 14 months. Before that, he presided over human rights cases at the International Court of Justice at The Hague for seven years.
On this day in Banjul, The Gambia, he acquitted a widely disliked admiral of treason. The country’s president, Yahya Jammeh — who was only removed from power after a parlous shock election in 2016 — was bent on removing all perceived enemies and was less than satisfied.
At noon the same day Chowhan made the decision, he returned to his room. Instead of sitting at his desk as he usually did after lunch, he moved to watch the BBC’s coverage of the events in The Gambia. As he walked to the TV, the mirror and curtain bar that hung high above his desk fell onto where he had just been sitting.
“That thing was there for two years,” he told me recently. “And all of sudden after that judgment, it falls on me… It would have killed me.”
“So I left The Gambia, because I was quite afraid I may be assaulted.” He said he wasn’t sure the secretary wasn’t also involved. News reports at the time called his departure a “removal,” and there was no mention that he was afraid for his physical safety. He was still pondering the incident when Dawn reporters came to him for a profile five days after the incident, he said. “I didn’t want to make too much of a scandal out of that.”
Although several outlets labeled him “retired,” he was quick to correct. When he left The Gambia, he knew another job awaited him. Pakistan had just created a national commission for human rights (NCHR), and he was at the top of the list of contenders to lead it. He’s now been in the position for two years. When we met last month, that was what I really wanted to talk about.
Chowhan ordered us samosas. He was seeking out a breath of air before returning to the neophyte commission that has forced his vacation days to go unused for two years. It was the day after UNESCO’s day-long conference on impunity for crimes against journalists in Colombo.
Chowhan was asked to speak at the conference on the possibility of regional cooperation. Asia is the only region of its size to lack a regional journalist institution. Pakistan themselves have had a terrible record for press freedom: 105 journalists were killed between 2000 and 2016, and more than 80 were murders. Only 4 percent of those cases have seen convictions.
A spokesman from Pakistan was critical to the conference, but Chowhan, chairman of the institution, had a problem. It was unlikely he had much positive to say about his country, and he doesn’t have control over where speaks in the name of the commission. That’s decided by parliament.
Luckily his request was approved, but other cases were not as fruitful. Chowhan had been invited to another conference on torture, but parliament did not allow the commission to attend, he said. “The government was taking a stand that there was not torture there, and I said there is torture,” he told me.
This is the biggest challenge to the commission, he said. Independence.
Parliament voted to create the commission in 2012, a time of tug-of-wars between parliament, the military and the judiciary. Chowhan and I held the same view; for a country with Pakistan’s human rights violations, it’s an amazing feat to have a body that exposes these things. What happened in 2012 that paved the way for the commission’s creation?
“Economic benefits in the shape of GSP+,” Chowhan said decidedly. After agreeing to 27 international covenants decided by the European Union, national economies can export two-thirds of product categories to the EU with no tariffs. Only eight countries qualify for these benefits. Creating a human rights commission is not a requirement to receive GSP+ status, but agreeing to its foundational documents is. The Covenant on Economic and Political Rights and the Covenant on Social and Cultural Rights, both created in 1966, guide the commission.
Yet the law that established the NCHR produced no fruit for more than two years. Already the last nation in South Asia to create a human rights commission, efforts stalled once the country received the economic benefits it wanted. After two years, parliament announced a process to create the commission, but 2014 ended with little progress made.
“They were delaying the commission, which ultimately had to be created because of the human cry of people,” he said. Journalists especially, he said, put pressure on parliament to make the commission real. And after he returned from Gambia, human rights workers got to work setting it up.
“One year was wasted when we were setting it up,” he said. “All the rules had to be made.” But from the end of 2015 to the beginning of 2016 the commission were able to investigate the Tharpakar hunger crisis and the Kasur incident of child abuse and paid field visits to KPK, Punjab, Sindh and prisons around the country. Since then, milestones have focused on briefing the parliament, drafting laws, and promoting transgender rights.
“I tell you, this is one of the best actions of Pakistan and the EU to create a commission and put a condition about economic benefits for Pakistan only if the commission is created,” he says. He found an interest in human rights while receiving training at Columbia University in New York. The HRCP was not his first job in human rights; he said he’s been fighting for these rights in every position since then.
The 2012 law mandated that the institution be able to inquire into every function of government, but the intelligence agencies are off limits and parliament mediates any inquiry with the military. The commission can do whatever inquiries it wants on its own, but two of the most contentious bodies in the country are outside its grasp. On top of that, funding and hiring must always be approved by parliament. How do you tackle the commission’s biggest challenge, independence, in such an environment? I asked.
“That’s our argument — that unless the budget is currently allocated to us — our independence is not guaranteed,” he said. “Whatever allocation that is given to us, we work in those, and nobody interferes with that. But thats not enough… Without the purse we can’t be independent.”
The 2012 law only states that the government will allocate an annual budget and anything approved within that budget does not need to be reapproved. If a need arises, as often does with investigations, the commission has to make a more specific request. “We have to go to back to parliament, we have to place our demands, and when we get it, it’s piecemeal,” he said. “We can’t have a long-term plan.”
“We have had tumultuous times,” he said, “because some members of parliament wanted to boss us around.” He was reluctant to give examples. The commission’s latest review reports that there has been no improvement in human rights since its creation.
Chowhan was happy to pass on the commission’s unpublished reports. Three documents on transgender rights — a topic he began to highlight at the end of 2016 — are exemplary. In addition to providing justification for protection through judicial and international agreements, the commission interrogates Islamic law to understand the teachings of Islam regarding transgender rights. One bill they drafted on protections for transgender and intersex people is currently on parliament’s agenda.
The UN provides accreditation to national human rights institutions if they fully follow the Paris Principles, as it has with India’s human rights institution. Although Pakistan has yet to file an application, it’s not likely they will receive the stamp of approval in the current state, because the 2012 law doesn’t give the commission full power to investigate the military and intelligence services.
“These things don’t take place overnight,” he said. “But I’m quite optimistic.”
Chowhan hasn’t held a job like this before. He deals with domestic and international law, but now his goals are his prerogative. News media wasn’t beneficial in his position in Gambia or The Hague. Now he’s become a driven advocate. “There’s nothing to hide, and I believe in transparency,” he told me before departing back to his office in Islamabad.
Published as “Pakistan’s Human Rights Chairman on Gambia, Independence and a Busy First Two Years” on Medium.