WE are a country where a lot has a tendency to suddenly go ‘missing’. At times, it is books, like the Urdu translation of Mohammad Hanif’s magnificent novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which, after being allegedly confiscated by intelligence officials nearly two years ago, remains persona non grata among local bookshops to this day. At others times, it is bills of parliament, like the one trying to criminalise enforced disappearances, which, while making its merry way to the Senate, decided to take an unexplainable detour to some sort of nowhere-land, forcing the incumbent minister for human rights to ring alarm bells about how the ‘missing persons bill’ had very ironically gone missing itself (one may assume that it has since been found, since little more has been said on the subject).
Mostly though, it is people who go missing from our midst — and unlike inanimate objects like books and bills, whose disappearance can at least be stomached to some degree, the disappearance of people is a different matter altogether. These are human beings, entitled by our Constitution to certain basic guarantees: the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to a fair trial. A person who magically vanishes into thin air is conveniently not in a position to claim any of these, and this, is precisely why this venomous technique has caught the fancy of despotic regimes the world over.
The missing person may be dead, their mutilated body dumped into a ditch. They may be interned, locked in some detention centre of dubious legality. They may be subjected to torture or maltreatment at the hands of ruthless interrogators. The law cannot protect them, because the state (the very body responsible for ensuring that protection) has deliberately placed the person beyond its reach. Plausible deniability ensures that any fingers that are pointed at public functionaries rest, at best, on circumstantial evidence, and at worst, on mere conjecture. And so, they suffer on, as do their families, trapped in a perpetual limbo of hope and dread.
Enforced disappearances are endemic to a number of politically turbulent and conflict-ridden countries. Evidence of the Pakistani state employing the methodology is recorded from the mid-1980s, and by all likelihood, stretches much further back. However, it is only after our entry into the ‘war on terror’ that it begins to crystallise, first as an unofficial instrument of our counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policies, and thereafter, as an institutionalised tool of terror itself, to be unleashed against dissent of various forms.
The law cannot protect them, because the state has placed the person beyond its reach.
If the issue has come to national and international prominence, it is largely due to the lionhearted efforts of those nearest and dearest to the victims — like the caravan of families that once trekked over 2,000 kilometres on foot for their cause, or the ones who kept alive a protest camp in Quetta for 10 consecutive years, or the many, many others who have organised demo after demo after demo, usually without any coverage from mainstream electronic media. Thankfully, in 2011, following orders from the Supreme Court, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances was formally constituted and tasked with a mandate to “trace the whereabouts” of missing persons and “fix responsibility on the individuals or organisations responsible”.
Since its inception, it has received over 8,279 complaints, out of which at least 6,047 have been ‘disposed of’ — a phrase that makes it sound as though some sort of justice has been dispensed in final form, but in fact, signifies only that the person who forms the subject of the complaint is either: confirmed dead, returned home, located at an internment centre, or in jail. It also includes any complaints ‘deleted’ due to technical faults, like an incorrect name or address, and cases that have been ruled not to be instances of enforced disappearance.
Over the past decade, it has tracked hundreds of missing persons to various detention facilities, at times years after they were reported missing. The commission seems to think this is enough, but, as late I.A. Rehman Sahib repeatedly pointed out on these pages, this is not where such cases end, but rather, where they begin. Tracing people down is only part of the puzzle. We must account for their period of absence. Sadly, till date, not a single perpetrator has been publicly identified and prosecuted. In light of this pitiful performance, the International Commission of Jurists has fittingly noted that in its current form, the body has “enabled and entrenched impunity” instead of “providing redress to victims”. UN experts have also voiced similar concerns.
Not surprisingly, as the inquiry commission cheerfully keeps on ticking people off of its list, more keep surfacing. The latest is Hafeez Baloch, a student of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, who was abducted by unidentifiable actors in his hometown of Khuzdar a few weeks prior. His disappearance follows on the heels of two others — Faseeh and Sohail, both students of Balochistan University who vanished at the end of last year. This is doing what it has always done — fuelling grief and alienation and mistrust. Surely, this bloody blot on our national conscience cannot be allowed to become any larger.
What can be done? Here is an entire list of recommendations that sane voices throughout the country have been proposing for years. Let us codify enforced disappearances as an autonomous offence in our Penal Code. Let us reconstitute this toothless excuse of a commission with a body that has some bite force, one that is actually commensurate with the formidable task it has been entrusted with. Let us sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, preferably without reservations to its reporting mechanisms (if only to keep us on our toes). And finally, but most importantly, let us puncture the veil of secrecy that enshrouds our security apparatus and ensure that every institution in the country works under a basic statutory framework in consonance with the Constitution.
Law is the only thing that must reign supreme. Without its primacy, we will remain a rudderless ship, adrift in tempestuous waters, and destined for wreckage whichever way we turn.
The writer is a barrister.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2022