THE ‘missing persons’ issue is a burning issue of public importance. It has gained central importance because it has become intrinsically linked with the current insurgency in Balochistan and the recent attempt to silence the debate on the issue of ‘missing persons’ from the province.
The public discourse on this issue is between two camps. Firstly, the human rights camp which takes an uncompromising moral and legalistic position, condemns the state elements for the disappearances and demands criminal legal action against such state elements. Secondly, the national security camp (ie the military establishment) which advises pragmatic silence on this issue due to reasons of national security.
But like most issues in public discourse, this discourse is riddled with misconceptions and unjustified policy positions. In other words, the deadlock in this discourse is also the result of various mythologies surrounding this issue.
Myth No.1: Any act of abduction or detention by agents of the state for days or months or years, without legal authority or court sanction and followed by a refusal to acknowledge such disappearances, is an act of enforced/involuntary disappearance. Therefore, not all missing persons cases or disappearances are cases of enforced disappearances but all cases of enforced disappearances are missing persons cases. This is because there are missing persons who have voluntarily disappeared for political or personal reasons without informing their loved ones or have been kidnapped/abducted by persons for private reasons. It is precisely for this reason that the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, established by the federal government, has dismissed some of the cases as not being those of enforced disappearances.
Myth No.2: It is a fact and not merely an allegation that the state of Pakistan, through its civilian and military forces and intelligence agencies, has engaged in the practice of enforced disappearances. This is because, firstly, the Pakistani state itself has established two Commissions of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, headed by retired Supreme Court judges, which have identified many cases of enforced disappearances, recommended criminal action against the nominated state elements and compensation for the victims. Secondly, the Supreme Court in the ‘Muhabat Shah’ case and in the ‘Law and Order case on Balochistan’, has, in detail, documented cases of enforced disappearances and the role of the civil and military forces and intelligence agencies. Therefore, the denial narrative and the silencing of the debate is futile and counterproductive.
Myth No.3: Baloch insurgents allege that there are around 12,000 to 14,000, and the Islamic militants allege that there are several thousand enforced disappearances. There is little evidence to support such exaggerated numbers. Firstly, the second Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearance had 801 alleged enforced disappearance cases pending before it as of October 2013. Secondly, there were about 721 alleged enforced disappearances cases pending before various courts as of December 2013, and these cases overlap with cases before the commission. Thirdly, there were around 1,570 persons detained in various internment centres in provincially or federal administrated tribal areas (ie Pata and Fata) as of July 2013, and a substantial number of these interns are persons whose cases are pending before the commission or courts.
Myth No.4: All the persons who are listed as enforced disappearances may no longer be missing. This is because dead bodies of a substantial number of them have been discovered or some of them are presumed dead because of the long periods of their detention and there may be some evidence to suggest that they may no longer be alive or a very large number of them may have been shifted to internment camps (in preventive detention centres without trial) located in Pata and Fata.
Myth No.5: The overwhelming cases of enforced disappearances are from KP (ie 356) and not from Balochistan (ie 68) and even the overwhelming number of persons detained in the internment camps are from KP (ie. as of July 2013). Therefore, the focus of the missing persons debate on Balochistan has less to do with the numbers and more to do with the liberal positive bias in favour of Baloch insurgents and the bias against Islamic militants.
Myth No.6: The large-scale practice of enforced disappearances only developed during the Musharraf dictatorship in the post-2003 and 2004 period and there is little evidence to suggest that the Pakistani state engaged in it on a large scale prior to this period. Therefore, it was a result of the nature and arrogance of the Musharraf dictatorship and is not necessarily linked with the military establishment. Secondly, it also developed because of the absence of flexible long-term detention laws (ie lawfully detaining people without trial for long periods of over one year) within the context of militarised terrorism conflict where there is little, or only inadmissible evidence, for the trial of such persons.
Myth No.7: This problem is not intractable. Compared to countries like Iraq (16,548) or Sri Lanka (12,473), the problem of enforced disappearances in Pakistan appears solvable especially considering that, firstly, it is on a decline. Secondly, a lot of disappeared persons have already been recovered due to the efforts of the courts and commission. Thirdly, there is already a workable solution, in the form of a proposed law against enforcement disappearances lying with the federal government, based on the consensus recommendations of the civilian and military establishment as a result of the deliberations of the Federal Task Force on Missing Persons. Such a proposed law envisages the criminalisation of enforced disappearances, flexible detention laws allowing long-term detention, an independent tribunal for deciding enforced disappearance cases, immunity to state officials only if they make full disclosures about enforced disappearances and compensation for victims.
The non-resolution of this issue has less to do with its intractability and more to do with the counterproductive denial narrative of the military establishment and intellectual laziness and the moral idealism of the human rights camp. Sadly, this is another example of our national failure to resolve a solvable problem.
The writer is a former member of the Federal Task Force on Missing Persons.
Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2015