Another commission

Published January 2, 2023

A NEW commission formed by the Balochistan government, on the orders of the provincial high court, to trace missing persons would be the third such government body given this specific task. Already there exists the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, formed by the Supreme Court, while the Islamabad High Court has also set up such a commission, members of which were recently in Balochistan to talk to relatives of the disappeared. While the state’s interest in tracing the missing is commendable, it should be remembered that, instead of forming a multitude of commissions and committees, enforcing steps to hold those state elements, who are responsible for this deplorable practice, to account would go a long way in ending enforced disappearances.

If the state — both its civilian and military wings — is serious about bringing the missing back home and ending illegal detentions by government and state operatives, then, for one, the multiplicity of commissions must be reconsidered; instead, a single empowered body can be given the job of tracing the missing. Moreover, the recently formed Balochistan commission will only help trace those individuals “not involved in anti-state or terrorist activities”. The issue here is that ‘anti-state’ is a broad, vague term, and can be misused by the government or the establishment to penalise even those who criticise state institutions within the confines of free speech. The fact is that whether it is Balochistan or elsewhere in the country, it is the civilian law-enforcement agencies, as well as the courts, who should be arresting and trying, respectively, those accused of breaking the law. By all means, those individuals who take part in illegal activities, or attempt to wage war against the state, need to be tried and punished. But this must be a transparent process, with access to a fair trial. People just cannot be picked up in the dead of the night, ‘disappeared’, and then ‘returned’ years later ‘repentant’, or even worse, come home in a coffin. Enforced disappearances are an affront to democratic rule, and only end up adding to alienation with the state and the system. Those who think that illegally picking up people will add to the country’s security are mistaken; this vile practice only serves to radicalise marginalised groups. As has been stated countless times, if the state or the security forces believe an individual is involved in subversive activities, bring them to a court of law so that they can defend themselves.

The political leadership, as well as the new army chief, can help end this deplorable practice. There needs to be an institutional decision to make enforced disappearances a thing of the past, and bring back all the missing, while trying those who the state may have credible evidence against. Pakistan can only be made safer by respecting the law, not breaking it.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2023

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