WASHINGTON: The alleged disappearances of political activists in Pakistan surfaced in a US Congress subcommittee on Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers urged the Trump administration to raise this issue with Islamabad.

At this special hearing of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, lawmakers also accused Pakistan of continuing to allow Afghan extremists to destabilise the government in Kabul, a charge raised at a Senate hearing on Tuesday as well. The lawmakers also backed President Donald Trump’s Jan 4 decision to suspend security assistance to Pakistan.

As relations between the two countries strained, US lawmakers, think-tanks and media too have started taking a keen interest in Pakistan’s domestic politics, highlighting the grievances of smaller political, religious and ethnic groups.

Such groups have also become active in the US capital and other cities, holding protest meetings and marches. Although such meetings are always tiny, the dissidents are often invited to air their views at larger congressional meetings and media platforms. But congressional hearings like the one held on Wednesday afternoon are rare.

Aqil Shah, one of the two witnesses who spoke about disappearances in Sindh and Balochistan, said that although “disappearing” political opponents of the government in Pakistan was an old practice it has increased in recent years.

In recent years, the agencies responsible for these disappearances “have broadened their crackdown to include social media and other political activists, rights defenders, and reporters”, said Mr Shah, who teaches South Asian politics at University of Oklahoma.

He also quoted from a report by Pakistan’s official Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappear­ances, which received nearly 300 cases of enforced disappearances from August to October 2017, the highest since its creation in 2011.

“The US should work with its allies to urge Pakistan to strengthen the Commission on Enforced Disappearances, and the National Human Rights Commission, and to urgently ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances,” Mr Shah said.

There’re official mechanisms in Pakistan that can address human rights violations, including enforced disappearances but those need to be strengthened and implemented, he argued. He told the House panel that the Pakistan government established a National Commission for Human Rights in 2012 for the protection and promotion of human rights. “But its functioning has been marred by institutional problems such as lack of autonomy, shortage of trained personnel, budgetary constraints, a limited mandate over the armed forces, and the fact that it has no authority to investigate intelligence agencies,” Mr Shah said.

The official Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, established in 2011, has the authority to fix responsibility and file police reports against those involved in the disappearance of an individual, “but it has not brought anyone to justice for these crimes”, he added.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2018