Pakistan’s missing persons’ cases have finally caught the imagination of the international community and a United Nations working group on enforced and involuntary disappearances has arrived on an information-gathering mission on the invitation of the Pakistan government. The team of experts will visit various parts of the country from September 10 to 20, meet state officials, representatives of civil society organisations, relatives of disappeared persons and representatives of relevant UN agencies, and eventually present its findings before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The arrival of the working group is a welcome step in a country where we have as yet not even determined the exact number of ‘missing persons’ – a phrase popularised in Pakistan in 2001 soon after the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of the US-led war on terror. Reports suggest most ‘missing persons’ disappeared after having been accused of assisting various terrorist or anti-state organisations; some were handed over to the CIA or flown to Bagram in Afghanistan and later shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. These reports have never been meaningfully proved or debunked and the state has never felt the need to present real evidence on either count. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has also taken up the case and warned of action against the top brass of security agencies but their response has uniformly been one of denial. Thus, when the UN’s experts get down to the task of gathering information on cases of enforced disappearances, especially the measures adopted by the state to prevent and eradicate them, it is almost certain that they will be confronted with the picture of a state that neither understands the problem, nor is interested in self-reform. For here in Pakistan, issues related to truth, justice and reparation for victims of enforced disappearances pale in comparison to weighty notions like national sovereignty and integrity in whose name countless injustices have been committed in the past and continue to be committed.
Thus, we can only hope then that the state here will allow the UN team to succeed in its endeavour to establish a channel of communication between the families and the government, ensure that individual cases are investigated, and shed some light on the whereabouts of persons who, having disappeared, have been placed outside the protection of the law. Forced disappearances negate the very essence of humanity and cannot and should not be tolerated nor justified. Indeed, if there is one lesson to learn on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 and the wars and destruction triggered by it, it is that we cannot justify illegal and extrajudicial violence against our citizens, whether it is to counter terrorism or fight organised crime. The task that thus confronts Pakistan is not only to find the disappeared and achieve justice for the thousands of forced disappearances that have occurred in the last decade; the challenge is also to end the phenomenon altogether, for all times to come. Until that happens, people in Pakistan will continue to suffer the ceaseless sorrow of uncertainty and insecurity suffered both by the missing and those who would much rather think their loved ones are ‘missing’ than dead.