Enforced or involuntary disappearances is a global issue with thousands of people abducted or forcibly taken away by security agencies. The practice has been declared not only a blatant violation of human rights but also a crime under international law that creates an atmosphere of fear and insecurity in society.
The UN General Assembly has time and again described enforced disappearance as “an offence to human dignity” and a grave violation of international human rights law.
Enforced disappearances, according to the definition of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance is “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such a person outside the protection of the law.”
As per a UN report, over 55,000 persons have been forcibly taken away by security agencies in 107 countries in the world during the last three decades.
Situation in Pakistan
However, the practice has become pervasive in Pakistan in recent years. The use of enforced disappearances as a tool by security agencies to silence dissent, particularly political activists, journalists, students, and even children in Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh provinces has increased alarmingly.
The Inquiry Commission on Enforced Disappearances submitted its progress report to the Supreme Court on February 1, 2023. The report provided details on cases filed and disposed of until January 31, 2023.
According to the report, 91 cases were filed in January, bringing the total number of cases filed to 9,224, with 7,031 disposed of by the end of January. Baloch and Pashtun ethnicities were the most targeted, as the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) reported that over 5,000 people are missing in Balochistan, and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) claimed that over 5,000 Pashtuns are still missing.
It is deeply troubling that enforced disappearances remain unrecognized as criminal offenses under Pakistani law, resulting in the misrepresentation of such heinous acts. The practice of filing such cases under the categories of kidnapping or abduction against unknown individuals grossly disregards the severe trauma and suffering experienced by the victims of enforced disappearances. The problem is not just the illegal confinement or detention of the missing persons but also the complete absence of information regarding the reasons for their detention. Furthermore, the legal provisions applied to enforced disappearances cases fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that state institutions are often the perpetrators of such heinous crimes.
Unfortunately, certain laws in Pakistan provide official support for enforced disappearances, which is a disturbing reality. One of these laws which holds particular significance in the present discussion is the Protection of Pakistan Act of 2014. The Act confers impunity upon security forces for any violations of human rights that they may commit under the pretext of safeguarding national security. The Act’s Section 6 permits detention and internment of individuals, Section 9 allows the government to withhold information on the fate of disappeared individuals, and Section 20 provides security forces with immunity for actions taken in ‘good faith’.
The lack of accountability and transparency in the process of detentions and trials has only exacerbated the problem of enforced disappearances in Pakistan. The victims of enforced disappearances are often subjected to torture and ill-treatment during their detention, with some never being seen or heard from again. This is a gross violation of human rights and a stain on Pakistan’s record as a democratic state.
The absence of transparency not only allows perpetrators to act with impunity but also has a devastating impact on the families of the victims of enforced disappearances. For years, these families have been left in agony and uncertainty, grappling with the emotional distress of not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead. Despite organizing protests and sit-ins to draw the attention of the authorities, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The sense of hopelessness they experience is compounded by the fact that they have received no information from the authorities, leaving them without closure or justice. This has led to immense psychological and emotional suffering for these families who continue to wait for answers about their loved ones.
Despite repeated promises by the government to address the issue, enforced disappearances continue unabated. Various international organizations such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Asian Human Rights Commission have repeatedly called on Pakistan to take effective measures to end the practice and hold the perpetrators accountable.
It is high time for the government to take concrete steps toward ending the practice of enforced disappearances and bringing those responsible to justice. To do so, the government should ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
The state must ensure that all laws and policies conform to this international convention, and all the state actors involved in such practice are held accountable.
Moreover, the government must ensure that its security forces and intelligence agencies operate within the bounds of the law and are subject to appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms.
Unless these concrete steps are taken, enforced disappearances will continue to occur, and Pakistan will continue to be seen as a violator of human rights.
The issue of enforced disappearances is not just a legal or political issue; it is a humanitarian crisis that affects the lives of thousands of families in Pakistan. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the human rights of its citizens and ensure that justice is served for all.
Zeeshan Ali is a graduate of the University of Baltistan with a degree in English linguistics and literature. He is interested in human rights and has been following the issue of enforced disappearances in Pakistan.