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August 31, 2018

Without a trace


August 31, 2018

According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, since its inception it has received more than 56,000 reports of people who have gone missing around the world. The International Day for the Victims of Involuntary or Forced Disappearances (marked yesterday) is for those who have been whisked away from their homes by unknown elements. The numbers of course do not include those who may have been abducted for ransom or in other criminal incidents. In Pakistan, the problem of tracking and releasing ‘missing’ people and holding accountable those who were responsible for their abduction has proven beyond the capabilities of every government. There is denial that people are forcibly ‘disappeared’ and even the courts seem powerless to recover them.

This time, the Senate at least tried to address the issue and the Committee on Human Rights approved the idea of making enforced disappearances a criminal offence. Right now, enforced disappearances are handled under the general laws on kidnapping. The specific nature of enforced disappearances needs to be treated as a separate crime. That the Senate committee is taking this problem seriously is a positive start but there is still much to be done. The hearing illustrated how casually this problem is dismissed. The chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, Justice (r) Javed Iqbal, while supporting the idea of creating a new criminal category for enforced disappearances, also claimed that the issue is blown out of proportion by anti-Pakistan INGOs and that many of those believed to be ‘missing’ are actually militants living abroad. In fact, the problem of enforced disappearances is rife throughout the country and includes nationalists, activists and students.

Even something as simple as criminalising enforced disappearances will take time. The full Senate and the National Assembly will both have to pass a bill. Even if it does so, there is no guarantee that those responsible will be punished. To date, many ‘missing’ people have been either released or produced in court but no one has been punished for the abductions. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has itself been accused of whitewashing the problem. Many families of ‘missing’ people are afraid of approaching the commission because they believe bringing publicity to the problem will only lead to further reprisals. Those who have been disappeared have also had to face organised hate campaigns on the electronic and social media. Pakistan now needs to decide if it is going to be a country that respects rule of law and observes due process. It is not good enough to accuse those who have gone missing of being anti-Pakistan. If they are guilty of breaking the law, then they can only be punished in a court of law after having the right to defend themselves. We hope the new government will take due note of the problem and work to find a way to end people going missing for week after week, month after month and sometimes year after year.

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