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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 315, 17 March 2022

Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan: The problems of impunity and accountability



Lack of accountability and impunity are two main causes for the continuing case of disappearances in Pakistan

Abigail Miriam Fernandez

What the report says
A recent report submitted by the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) to the Islamabad High Court (IHC) revealed that of the 8,463 citizens missing since March 2011, only 3,284 have been traced and returned. Of these cases, the commission has disposed of 6,214 cases, whereas 2,249 are still under investigation. Further, the report states that 1,178 cases were “not of enforced disappearances” after thorough investigation because in these cases “missing persons have either gone on their own” or these cases related to “kidnapping for ransom or personal enmity.”
 
The report also claimed that the major reasons for the increasing number of missing people between 2007 and 2009 were a military operation against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), drone attacks in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and illegal crossing of the Afghan border. Further, the report states that 228 individuals on the missing persons' list were found to have been killed in ‘encounters’, with no individual or entity held to account for the extrajudicial killings yet.
 
The Problem of Enforced Disappearances: Numbers, Victims, and Preparators 
The issue of enforced disappearances is one of the major human rights concerns in Pakistan. Although this is not a recent phenomenon in Pakistan, the involvement of security forces in enforced disappearances has been a recent factor. Earlier reports of enforced disappearances date back to the 1970s; however, a significant rise in the number of cases was recorded in the early 2000s, starting with Pakistan’s involvement in the US-led “war on terror” in late 2001. Since then, several people accused of terrorism-related offences have reportedly “disappeared” after being allegedly abducted by security agencies and detained in secret facilities, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh. As a result, the issue which is endemic to Pakistan remains unresolved.
 
The exact number of disappearances remains unknown; several cases go unreported by families who prefer not to report cases to the authorities or human rights organizations because of fear of retaliation by the authorities. However, according to the monthly press
release of COIED for 28 February 2022, the number of missing persons stands at 8463. Of which the following number of cases were reported from each province, Punjab (1502) Sindh (1696), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (3201), Balochistan (1676) and Islamabad (319).
 
The main sections of victims include Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi and Shia backgrounds. They are often suspected Islamic or separatist militants; however, they are mostly political opponents, activists, students, politicians, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers. The victims are usually picked up by the State without due process and no information is given to the family.
 
The preparators are state officials from the intelligence agencies and security forces. In 2019, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said, “HRCP has ample evidence to support the allegations of victims' families that the perpetrators of enforced disappearances are intelligence agencies and security forces.” Additionally, it is also claimed that the perpetrators include officials from the Frontier Corps (FC), the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who often work together with the local police.
 
Two major issues of Enforced Disappearances: Impunity and Accountability 
First, the impunity. Enforced disappearances are closely connected to the culture of impunity that exists in Pakistan. In most cases, the perpetrators have acted openly in the presence of witnesses. It is this impunity that is seen at several levels right from the police who often refuse to register and investigate disappearance cases to courts who are unable to fully enforce the law against the security forces to intelligence agencies who believe they are above the law. Additionally, security officials claim that there are deficiencies in the procedure of investigation and penal laws, which is why they resort to picking up people rather than eliminating the deficiencies in the law of crime. Thus, by justifying their actions as an essential means to ensuring security.
 
Second, the failure to ensure accountability. The culture of impunity closes links to the issue of accountability. With security forces claiming that they are doing a ‘good deed’ by picking up alleged criminals, they hope that the actions not be made accountable. Additionally, in many instances, security forces withhold information on cases stating that such agencies are “not accountable to anyone.” Thus, cases remain unresolved because there is no entity or individual to hold accountable for the practice.
 
Additionally, the ability to hold the perpetrators accountable is linked to the inability of the victims’ families to access courts. Often, courts have refused to hear their petitions and have directed them to lodge their complaints before the COIED instead. Another reason is the lack of legislation.
 
Enforced disappearances are yet to be criminalised in Pakistan. In August 2021, Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari stated that Pakistan was "moving forward" in its commitment to criminalise enforced disappearances and emphasised that such acts were "unacceptable in a democracy" as the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Interior approved a bill on enforced disappearances. However, in January 2022, she claimed that the bill that was prepared regarding missing persons was passed by the standing committee and the National Assembly had gone missing after it was sent to the Senate.
 
The COIED’s Responsibility 
The COIED was constituted in March 2011 with two primary mandates -  to “trace the whereabouts of allegedly enforced disappeared persons” and “fix responsibility on individuals or organizations responsible.” While the COIED has been relatively successful in tracing the whereabouts of missing persons in several cases, there has been no progress or efforts taken to address the latter which is to fix responsibility. The failure to address the situation by the COIED reflects the fact that the burden of the issue solely falls on the victims’ families.
 
 References
Submission of Monthly Summary February - 2022,” Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances
Missing empathy,” Dawn, 14 March 2022
Malik Asad, “Only one-third of 8,500 missing people have returned: report,” Dawn, 12 March 2022
Asfand Yar Warraich, “‘Missing’ in Pakistan,” Dawn, 11 March 2022
Nadir Gurmani, “Missing persons bill has gone 'missing', says Shireen Mazari,” Dawn, 3 January 2022
The rapidly growing enforced disappearances in PakistanGHRD, 21 December 2021
Pakistan: Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has failed in providing justice to victims,” International Commission of Jurists, 8 September 2020

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