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Victims of disappearance

August 16, 2011

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GOVERNMENTS in Islamabad have traditionally had a dismal human rights record. Even civilian leaderships have followed the brutal traditions set by their military partners, though quite often they have had to battle it out in the courts.

The incumbent PPP government, however, has been different in one way. It has ratified more of the UN’s nine core international human rights treaties than any of its predecessors. As a result, Pakistan is now a party to seven human rights international conventions. Four were ratified by the present government, two by the PPP governments in the 1990s and one in 1966.

Given its actual performance it appears that the government has accepted commitments on people’s civil, political and socio-economic rights and against torture with a cavalierly approach. Since no optional protocols which provide teeth to many of these treaties have been signed the government probably feels it can ignore its obligations under the treaties with impunity with no disastrous consequences.

It is the government’s act of omission that attracts more attention. There are two instruments that it has chosen to distance itself from — the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers (1990) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). Adopted by the UN Assembly in 2006 and having come into force a few months ago in December 2010, it is the second one that needs careful attention at the moment given its immediate relevance to what is happening in the country.

Balochistan is in the grip of an insurgency today. What began as sporadic acts of violence is now a full-blown uprising and has been a theatre of an army crackdown. Since no sincere attempt has been made to address the grievances of the Baloch, unrest has grown and the army with its training to fight a conventional war has found itself at a disadvantage.

In retaliation it has resorted to surreptitious methods against people it suspects are behind the unrest. That is what is widely alleged and has been confirmed by international human rights bodies. The youth picked up allegedly by the intelligence agencies constitute the ‘enforced disappeared’ of this unhappy province.

From information provided by Mir Mohammad Ali Baloch, a long-time activist from Sindh with a long association with the Baloch rights movement, we learn that the number of the missing is not small. When the Supreme Court took up their case in September 2009, 170 persons were said to be untraceable in Pakistan of whom 109 were Baloch. When the government was directed to provide information about them, it could point to the whereabouts of only six Baloch. Becoming uncomfortable with a court that was demanding proof and information from the authorities, they changed their tactics. From July 2010 to April 2011 it is reported that 104 Baloch youth were killed in kidnap, kill-and-dump operations, while 137 political prisoners were killed in custody.

Against this backdrop, shouldn’t Pakistan be paying more attention to the convention on enforced disappearance? Even though it is not a signatory of the convention it cannot afford to turn a blind eye to legal developments taking place around it. Defined by the UN as “a crime and, in certain circumstances … a crime against humanity”, enforced disappearance is taken very seriously. The convention recognises that it is every person’s right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance, and the right of victims to justice and reparation. What is most important is that the family of a victim is also regarded as a victim. Hence the preamble affirms “the right of any victim to know the truth about the circumstances of an enforced disappearance and the fate of the disappeared person”.

With the authorities refusing to take responsibility for this tragic phenomenon that is bringing so much anguish to the affected families the problem has been further compounded by the government’s denial of any involvement. Finding itself on a weak wicket the government erroneously believes that it can sweep the consequences of its ‘dirty war’ under the rug.

It is plain from a reading of the text that the authorities in Pakistan are playing with fire. For instance, Article 1 makes it categorical that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance”. Article 2 comprehensively considers any form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state or by persons acting with the authorisation or acquiescence of the state as a crime, as is its concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

In the course of time, the convention will become a part of international law. Our rulers would do well to remember the fate of the Chileans and Argentine dictators and army leaders who inflicted the agony of enforced disappearance in the 1970s and 1980s on their people. The convention had not even been conceptualised then. Yet Pinochet and others were put in the dock.

Now that enforced disappearance has been declared a crime against humanity no government should be unmindful of its moral and legal responsibilities. Rather than resort to military means, wouldn’t Pakistan do well to use political methods to resolve its Baloch problem? The need is to negotiate with Baloch representatives who speak for the people and not those who are the guardians of Islamabad’s interest in the province.

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