THE Senate Functional Standing Committee on Human Rights has endorsed Senator Farhatullah Babar’s campaign for the creation of a new, competent and adequately powerful commission to deal with enforced disappearances. The government will invite indictment for complicity if it does not heed this call on a priority basis.
The Senate committee is not the first to ask for a strong commission on disappearances. Over the past two months, the Supreme Court has repeatedly censured the authorities for their failure to deal with what has surely become a festering sore. The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance and the UN committees scrutinising Pakistan’s compliance with its obligations under the various human rights instruments have also been asking for strengthening the existing Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. These advices were disregarded when the life of the COIOED was recently extended.
The issue of disappearances was studied by a commission of three retired superior court judges and after looking at the issues related to disappearances and holding numerous hearings for eight months, it submitted its report on Dec 31, 2010. The government’s failure to publish the commission’s report has aggravated the hardships of the ‘missing persons’.
Victims’ families suffer in silence in the hope that they will thus be saved from collecting dead bodies.
Some of the commission’s findings published by a newspaper, and never denied by anyone, indicated that it held the government responsible for illegally detaining at least some of the ‘missing’ persons and ordered payment of compensation. The commission was reported to have criticised the police for booking the victims of enforced disappearance on concocted charges after they were handed over to them by the authorities that had been holding them unlawfully. While recommending legislation to legalise the working of intelligence agencies the commission went on to suggest a lawful procedure for detaining anyone. The commission’s recommendations have been ignored, except for the one that called for the establishment of a new commission to continue dealing with enforced disappearances.
Thus, the COIOED started functioning on March 1, 2011, with 136 cases it had inherited from the commission of judges. By Nov 30 this year, it had received 4,378 new cases. Obviously, even judging by reported cases, that are believed to be fewer than the actual number, the phenomenon of enforced disappearances has not ended. At the end of last month, the COIOED had no less than 1,498 cases pending before it.
To be fair to the COIOED, it did try to fulfil its task and a major part of the blame for its inability to deliver must be accepted by the government for it did not grant COIOED the stature, the skilled personnel and the financial resources it needed.
While the COIOED’s practice of circulating a monthly performance report is welcome, the information this report offers is inadequate. For instance, the report for October 2017 said that Zeenat Shahzadi, the Lahore journalist and human rights defender, had been recovered and reunited with her family but she did not accept the commission’s invitation to appear before it. For the commission, the matter ended there. Could it not send someone to see Shahzadi and ascertain whether she had really been freed and to record her statement?
In her last contact with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Shahzadi’s mother said that she and her daughter were staying at an Islamabad hospital and that Shahzadi was having a session with a psychiatrist. It should not be impossible for the COIOED or the government or even the Islamabad commissioner to trace Shahzadi and find out who is denying access to her. If during her abduction/ detention for two years, her health has seriously deteriorated the government has a duty to ensure that she gets the best possible medical treatment.
Nothing has been said by any authority about the non-state actors that are said to have abducted her. Was she recovered from the clutches of her abductors or did they throw her by the roadside? Has any one of her abductors been arrested or identified? Is her case on the active list of any federal, provincial or local authority? All these questions need to be satisfactorily answered if the government wishes to be accepted as a responsible entity. The National Commission for Human Rights has now taken up her case. Let us see how effective the NCHR’s intervention will be.
Now civil society is worried about Raza Mahmood Khan, a Lahore-based peace activist who disappeared last week. Since his activities were never secret and his lodgings were searched and ransacked by apparently professional hands, the authorities have a good trail to follow.
It is said that the victims of enforced disappearance refuse to talk about their ordeal. They might be afraid of reprisals. For the same reason, many cases of disappearance are not reported. The families of victims suffer in silence in the hope that in this way they will be saved from collecting dead bodies from a ditch or a ravine.
But one man has not remained silent. Nasir Shirazee, a leader of Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen, was recently released by his abductors after three weeks of detention. A couple of newspapers have carried his account. He too was told to keep his mouth shut. According to him, he was picked up because he had been talking about disappearances. Let us see what action will be taken on his disclosures. His decision to narrate what happened to him encourages the hope that if persistent efforts are made many more victims of enforced disappearance may become bold enough to tell their stories. The greater the number of people who speak out, the easier might the end of disappearances become.
Much else needs to be done beside the creation of a strong, statutory commission. The judges’ recommendations of 2010 should be implemented and the international convention on disappearances ratified. Finally the government must discover its will to make enforced disappearance a part of history.
Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2017