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Enforced disappearances in Balochistan: an unresolved humanitarian crisis

By definition, enforced disappearance occurs when a person is, “arrested, detained or abducted against their will by or with the support of government officials, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned, which places such persons outside the protection of the law”.

The victims in most cases are made subject to extreme physical and mental torture during the captivity, and the repercussions of such tragic measures transcend beyond the given definition of enforced disappearances, affecting in various physical and psychological ways all those socially and emotionally associated with the victim.

It is thus violating a number of collective social, cultural and economic rights whereby engendering a sense of insecurity and uncertainty within that society.

Enforced disappearances have become a regular feature of the on-going conflict in Balochistan, seeming to find no end.

The cases of enforced disappearances in Balochistan date back to the early 1970s when the security establishment of Pakistan abducted a number of Baloch political activists, including the prominent figure of Asad Mengal. He was the elder brother of Balochistan National Party chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal.

Early years of 2000 witnessed some cases of enforced disappearances; however, it picked up the pace by 2009 where the state authorities in Pakistan adopted a systematic attack against the political dissidents in order to weaken an emerging national struggle.

The aim was to terrorize the society as a whole in order to force people to think twice before joining the struggle for the right to self-determination of the Baloch people. Besides directly abducting political and social activists, the security establishment outsourced a number of proxy death squads to carry out widespread target killings and forceful abductions.

According to a report by BBC, about 1,000 dumped dead bodies of missing persons were found in Balochistan between the years 2011 and 2016. Baloch human rights organizations claim thousands are still missing, believed to be at the mercy of their abductors.

Various UN reports declared the phenomenon of enforced disappearances as a global tragedy. According to the UN, a large number of countries, including Pakistan, are reported to have committed on mass scales what is internationally regarded as a crime against humanity. As it goes along in the process, the state authorities in most of these countries besides denying the cases of enforced disappearances, they have employed various horrific strategies in order to eradicate evidence of their involvement and therefore evade accountability.

During Argentina’s infamous “Dirty War”, the victims of enforced disappearances were drugged and then dumped in the Atlantic Ocean from aircrafts what became known as Argentina’s “Death Flights”.

In Sri Lanka, “white vans” with no number plates would come and whisk away the victims in the night or in broad daylight. The bodies of some of the victims were only to be found later in mass graves.

Pakistan’s “Kill and Dump” policy in Balochistan has victimized hundreds of human rights and socio-political activists who in an identical manner were rounded up from their homes or in plain sight of the public.

After, some time, may be days or months, depending upon the political credentials of the individuals, their bodies would resurface in a desolate place mutilated beyond recognition, and occasionally bearing words “Long Live Pakistan” engraved on their flesh.

Pakistan is a signatory of core international human rights treaties, including the international covenant on civil and political rights and convention against torture and other inhuman treatment. All these treaties and the constitution of Pakistan in its article (10A), (10) and (9), with some “exclusions”, call for fair trial and prohibit the unlawful abduction of civilians.

The single most powerful military establishment of Pakistan, however, continues to act in constant disregard of the UN principles, the state constitution, and laws by functioning as Judge, Jury and the Executioner.

The  Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), following its visit to Pakistan in 2012, realized the involvement of law enforcement agencies in enforced disappearances in Balochistan and pointed out in its findings about a culture of impunity enjoyed by the security establishment since there is no law in Pakistan that makes enforced disappearance criminal under criminal code of Pakistan, and showed grave concerns in its follow up report in 2016 that despite its pledge to ratify certain human rights treaties since 2008, Pakistan has not ratified to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court that regards enforced disappearances a crime.

Furthermore, the Working Group was also very concerned that since its visit to Pakistan a number of amendments in Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, Army Act, Constitution of Pakistan and promulgation of Protection of Pakistan Act (PPA) were introduced.

“All these legislative measures provide for complete impunity for enforced disappearance. Rather, these steps have legalized enforced disappearance as an integral tool for investigations,” it noted in its report.

The state authorities in Pakistan, in their replies to the Human Rights Committee’s 120th session, claimed the abolishment of PPA in 2016; the other amendments, however, remain in place.

The WGEID also highlighted in its report about other loopholes in Pakistan state laws. For instance, article 245(3) bars the jurisdiction of high courts that under article 199 of the Constitution are unable to hear cases related to the armed forces in particular from issuance of habeas corpus orders (a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court) directed to members of armed forces, and the armed forces of Pakistan enjoy exclusive treatments such as military personnel cannot be submitted to trial before civil courts.

The security establishment, on the other hand, cares least about orders issued by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Supreme Court held a number of hearings in Quetta on the case of Constitution Petition No. 77 of 2010 and adopted an order on 12 October 2012, ordering the FC to produce the missing persons. Despite overwhelming evidence of FC involvement in forceful abduction of people, the court order was not implemented.

The International Commission of Jurists – ICJ reported that following a constitutional amendment in 2015, nearly nullifying article 10 of the constitution and authorizing military courts to try civilians for terrorism-related offenses that fail to fulfil the basis of fair trial under both the state and international law. Facing increasing demands for facts from the families of the victims the state authorities constituted the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances in 2011 and National Commission of Human Rights Pakistan in 2012 to investigate and mitigate the cases of enforced disappearances. However, UN Committee against Torture in its initial report on Pakistan in 2017 highlighted the lack of power enjoyed by the Inquiry Commission and NCHRP to investigate properly into the matters of enforced disappearances and also showed concern of their inefficiency and method of working.

The state authorities in Pakistan on international forums continue to deny the existence of the cases of enforced disappearances. They continue to ignore the plight of families of victims by calling their campaigns tantamount to maligning the international image of the state.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the head of a major nationalist party in Balochistan, during his first speech in the National Assembly in 2018, tabled a list of Baloch missing persons prepared in liaison with the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) containing some five thousand names.

The UN Human Rights Committee for International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee Against Torture in their reports have concluded that the current legal framework of Pakistan does not provide remedy to the core human rights challenges and called on Pakistan to review parts of its constitution to ensure its compatibility with international standards.

The WGEID recommended that the missing persons be given the right to free trial in civil courts. Their whereabouts should be disclosed to the family members and those involved in this crime must be prosecuted.

The UN Human Rights Committee, in its reports in 2017 and 2018, noted that despite the state party’s claims to have prosecuted those involved in enforced disappearances has not substantiated its claims with any evidence.

The ongoing phenomenon of enforced disappearances is a grave matter. It involves the dignity of individuals and communities. The phenomenon in Balochistan is a human tragedy by accounts. However, a majority of national and international observers believe that it will be too sanguine to expect from the security establishment of Pakistan to demonstrate wisdom, and to change its policies –without- a robust third-party intervention.

About Qambar Malik Baloch

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Qambar Malik Baloch is a UK-based writer hailing from Balochistan. He writes on various socio-political issues facing the Baloch and Balochistan. He was the ex-chairperson of the Baloch Students Action Committee, BUITEMS, and the Baloch Students and Youth Association, UK.

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