Monday, March 3, 2008

Importance of Public Safety Commissions

Published in The News 18-08-2006
Importance of public safety commissions
By Afzal A Shigri

The Police Order was promulgated on August 14 four years ago and it replaced the Police Act of 1857. The vision was to eliminate political interference in police functions, redefine its role from that of regulation/enforcement to service, make it accountable before an independent authority and subject it to supervision by the civil society. In order to set up a mechanism for oversight by civil society, the concept of public safety commissions was introduced at the district, provincial and national levels. Such arrangements exist in a number of developed countries and have contributed in creating people-friendly law-enforcement machineries. It was deemed necessary to associate the members of local councils and assemblies with such an oversight by the civil society. Inclusion of politically elected members in this structure negates the very concept of de-politicisation of police. But this was balanced by giving equal representation to members of assemblies at national and provincial levels and in view of the myth of non-party district government, this representation was proportionate as a member could vote only for one candidate. This arrangement along with half independent members meant creation of reasonably neutral commissions that could be an effective check on the executive against the use of police for any political purpose. The provincial governments did not approve of such a check on their unbridled powers and thus under pressure from them, the law was drastically amended in 2004, changing the neutral complexion of the commissions at the district and provincial levels. Mercifully, the structure at the national level was not changed. It took four years to set up the commission. The names of members of the national public safety commissions were notified last month. There are twelve members in the commission and out of these six members are from the national assembly of which three were nominated by the leader of the house and three by the leader of the opposition. The remaining members are from the civil society for whose selection applications and nominations were invited through advertisement in the national press. Twelve applicants were short listed by a selection panel headed by a Judge of the Supreme Court nominated by the chief justice of Pakistan. From this short listed panel the President selected six independent members. The interior minister is the ex-officio chairperson of the commission and has a casting vote. It indeed important that such an institution is being set up to oversee and monitor federal law-enforcement agencies. The formation of the commission is one step towards having in place a police force that is answerable to the law.Amendments in the structure and functions of the commissions at the provincial and district levels have unfortunately compromised the fundamental changes that were envisaged in the police reforms introduced in 2002. The provincial commission has been restructured with the number of opposition members reduced from three to two and members from the treasury increased from three to four. This has disturbed the equilibrium. Nomination of one-third of its total membership from members of the national and provincial assemblies to district public safety commissions has politicised these institutions at the operational level. Similarly, the powers of the commissions with regard to checking the authority of the executive have been curtailed, making them ineffective in protecting public interest against the interest of the party in power. With this compromised system, the responsibilities of the national public safety commission, which have been left undisturbed except for its say in the posting and transfer of the provincial police officer, assume added importance. This commission is required to report to the government and the parliament every year on matters related to law and order, recommend reforms for modernisation of laws and procedure in respect of police, prosecution, prisons and probation services, facilitate coordination among the provincial public safety and police complaints commissions and consider proposals of the national police management board and give its recommendations to the government. Under these provisions, the national public safety commission can highlight and pinpoint gaps and shortcomings in law-enforcement and comment on the general law and order that is directly related to the internal security, address human rights issues and violation of laws by the provincial governments. These can be brought up before the assembly in its annual report for discussions and for change wherever it is in national interest. It can also recommend adoption of good practices, transparent procedures and modern laws. This annual report by the commission can be an effective tool in keeping a check on the provincial governments against misuse of provincial police. Its responsibility is not limited to police alone -- it can address other, hitherto neglected segments of criminal justice system i.e. prosecution, prisons and probation services. Timely intervention in the working of these services can have a positive impact on the overall criminal justice system and can bring much needed relief to the public. This commission is also linked to the national police management board where all the police heads of the provincial and federal police forces are represented providing them with a platform to advise federal and provincial governments on matters concerning general planning, development and standardisation of administration, education and training, gender sensitisation, communications, criminal identification facilities, criminal statistics and equipment of police and other law enforcement agencies; recommend standards of recruitment, appointment, promotions, transfers, tenure and discipline and develop standard operating procedures based on internationally accepted good practices for adoption by the police and law-enforcement agencies.On the basis of recommendations of the board pertaining to these important issues, the commission can initiate action and give its recommendations to the government. This linkage of the high-powered commission, headed by the Interior Minister, and the board of senior leadership of police cannot be ignored by any government. Despite being subjected to politically-motivated amendments, the Police Order of 2002 still has provisions that can be of great help in bringing some order in the so-called reforms in the provinces that are being introduced at great expense and which are at times even in conflict with the law and need to be regulated and channeled in the right direction. The government must understand that in the fast moving world of today, there are no quick fixes for intricate issues of law enforcement and maintenance of order. These diverse changes in the provinces must be checked before more damage is caused to the already battered and demoralised law enforcement machinery in the country. The national public safety commission can bring some sanity and order by making changes in policing in the country. It has the power, resources and the capacity to give a vision and show the way. And that is the expectation from the members of the commission. Will they live up to these expectations? One would like to be optimistic and hope for the best.The writer is former Inspector General of Police. Email: