ICJ’s scathing review

Updated 11 Sep 2020

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IT is not enough to say that a crime has been committed: to tackle it effectively perpetrators must be traced, investigated and successfully prosecuted. On that score, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has proved to be an unmitigated failure.

In a briefing paper highly critical of its work, the International Commission of Jurists — a global body of 60 eminent judges and lawyers whose opinions command enormous respect — has recommended that the COIED’s mandate not be renewed beyond Sept 14 when its tenure is due to expire. Titled Entrenching Impunity, Denying Redress, the document notes that the COIED has focused solely on determining the whereabouts of the missing, in which it has to some extent been successful. Of the 6,752 cases it has handled since March 2011 when it was established, 4,642 are have been “disposed of”; 2,110 remain pending. However, the commission has neglected to fulfil its mandate to “fix responsibility on individuals or organisations responsible”. In not a single case has anyone been held to account.

The ICJ has also pointed out that the definition of ‘enforced disappearance’ in the commission’s regulations is inconsistent with the international definition and “misses several critical elements”. As a result, it does not cover secret detentions, abductions by non-state actors having state support, etc. Many victims thus fall outside the COIED’s purview.

The commission’s “lack of structural independence”, according to the ICJ, weakens it further. There is also the question of its credibility, considering its chairman — retired Justice Javed Iqbal — also serves as head of NAB, a full-time job in itself, and in that capacity has been involved in a number of controversies. One may recall that the Supreme Court in a recent judgement denounced NAB for its violation of fundamental rights and pursuit of a political vendetta. In short, much needs to change before victims and their families can find redressal.

Meanwhile, those who commit this despicable crime, one that is taken straight from the playbook of history’s most despotic regimes, have been further emboldened. Enforced disappearances not just continue to take place here, they have reached a level of brazenness inconceivable a few years ago. Earlier, it was often in Balochistan — long a black hole for information — or remote parts of KP that individuals would be forcibly disappeared.

The theatre of action then slowly expanded to more populated areas. Now, victims are not necessarily snatched under cover of darkness; abductions even take place in broad daylight in busy urban centres. There may be multiple witnesses, yet no one seems able to trace the perpetrators, let alone prosecute them. Journalist Matiullah Jan was kidnapped in Islamabad on the morning of July 21; his ordeal ended 12 hours later when he was set free. Despite CCTV footage that clearly captured his abduction, no one has been apprehended. The ‘known unknowns’ remain free.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2020