Missing empathy

Published March 14, 2022

THE continued failure of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances to achieve any meaningful progress on implementing its mandate remains an abhorrent stain on Pakistan’s already dismal human rights record. According to a recent report submitted to the Islamabad High Court, the commission claims to have ensured the return of some 3,284 missing persons over the past 11 years, out of a total of 8,463 missing. Another 1,500 have been traced to internment centres or jails. While the achievement is commendable, it is arguably quite modest given the enormity of injustice the commission was formed to remedy. It is also diminished by the fact that, in this same period, the commission failed to ensure the production of 550 disappeared individuals despite the issuance of production orders. More disturbingly, 228 individuals on the missing persons list were found to have been killed in ‘encounters’, with no individual or entity held to account for the extrajudicial killings thus far.

Indeed, instead of coming up with actionable advice and recommendations for the government on how to put a much-needed end to this most grievous injustice, the commission seems to have limited itself by “assuming the role of a mere post office”, in the words of the IHC chief justice. This self-inflicted ‘helplessness’ betrays either an inadequate understanding of the pains and tribulations of the families of missing persons or a disregard for constitutional decrees regarding the primacy of human freedoms and the right to due process and fair trial. While the commission has dragged its feet, the families of those disappeared have continued to run pillar to post in their desperation to find a sympathetic ear. In many cases, they have been shunned by society and held guilty by association for the unproven (and even non-existent) ‘crimes’ of their missing loved ones. It is a painful burden to bear. Many of the disappeared were primary bread earners for their families: in their absence, their spouses, children or dependent parents have been damned to impoverishment for no fault of their own. The government, which has on many occasions expressed a desire to meaningfully address the missing persons issue, would do well to shake things up at the commission. A first step could be to appoint a new head whose attention is not occupied with other responsibilities. There is no dearth of candidates with demonstrated expertise in understanding and litigating cases concerning enforced disappearances.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2022

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