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Missing people

November 07, 2018


BELATEDLY, there seems to be a willingness to address the fact that the practice of enforced disappearances reflects extremely poorly on Pakistan in the international arena. Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari suggested at a Senate committee meeting on Monday that the prime minister sign the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearances — albeit with reservations over three of its clauses — to convey to the global community the seriousness with which Pakistan regards the issue. Notwithstanding the caveat, the very act of signing the convention is important if this country is not to continue appearing as an outlier in a matter that involves grave human rights violations. Dr Mazari also proposed a truth and reconciliation commission be set up so that affected families can find some closure. Meanwhile, legislation to criminalise enforced disappearances is on the anvil.

Although existing constitutional safeguards, such as the right to due process, should be sufficient to prevent people being disappeared, democratic institutions in Pakistan — perennially weak and on the defensive — have been unable to rein in unaccountable state elements allegedly behind most of the cases. The period during Iftikhar Chaudhry’s tenure as Supreme Court chief justice, when even members of the security establishment were summoned to court to answer tough questions about enforced disappearances, was an exception. While the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has done well to document the cases, and even traced the whereabouts of some of the missing, it has singularly failed to hold anyone accountable. Regrettably, its chairman, retired Justice Javed Iqbal, has even tried to downplay the matter, saying it had been “politicised”, that most of the disappeared people had left the country while only a small number were in internment centres. Senator Jehanzeb Jamaldini at the same Senate meeting cited earlier asked very pertinently why, if that was indeed the case, were the relatives of the missing continuing to appeal to politicians for information. These families are entitled to answers and, where it is possible, to be reunited with their loved ones. A truth and reconciliation commission, with its concept of restorative justice, can only work in the aftermath of extended confidence-building measures, when those vulnerable feel assured that they will not be victimised, or re-victimised as the case may be. The new government has a chance to prove it will do right by such people. Signing the convention must be the start of a long overdue correction.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2018