Mystery of Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan

The enigma of missing persons” remains unsolved in 2023, having begun as a trend under Musharraf‘s rule in 2002. Although such methods have been prevalent since the 1980s, injustice accelerated following the 9/11 attacks. According to the United Nations Declaration of 1992, a missing person is one who is abducted or arrested against their will and their families are refused access to their whereabouts. During the “war on terror,” a considerable number of people, including political activists, journalists, human rights’ activists and students, were seized without being tried in any court.
According to a report by the Organization for World Peace, around 8000 persons went missing as a result of the war, with no information on more than 2000 of them available to date. The figure is troubling for the impacted families as well as the state and violates basic human rights principles.

Missing persons’ cases have largely been reported from FATA and Baluchistan, where people appear to be protesting from time to time in the hope of regaining their basic rights. The issue is one of human rights, and it requires political attention and seriousness. Several attempts by the state to resolve the problem have previously failed. The Supreme Court of Pakistan attempted something similar in 2006, but it failed due to Parvez Musharraf’s declaration of emergency. Another attempt was made in 2011 when a commission was formed to investigate the situation, which showed that not a single responsible involved has been discovered to date, highlighting the state’s incapability to tackle the problem. The enforced disappearances have long been criminalized as per the international law but no such law exists in Pakistan till date.

The mainstream parties appear hesitant to address a major issue that affects its population and jeopardizes Pakistan’s credibility. However, these parties are more likely to utilize such slogans in political campaigning and against their political opponents in power. During campaigns, there has been a pattern of raising awareness of “enforced disappearances” and ensuring the support of those impacted. Despite the fact that no genuine progress has been achieved on the matter yet during his movement, the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) appeared to be on the front line of volunteering for the unheard issue. Once in power, his government appeared eager to prosecute these disappearances through the legal system. The law was signed by the National Assembly but never made it to the Senate, with the claim that it went ‘missing’. This throws insight on higher authorities’ reluctance and incapacity in this area. Among all of these odds, the Chairperson of the “Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP)” stated that 430 missing Baloch returned to their homes during Khan’s reign, while approximately 600 went missing during his tenure.

The issue has now expanded to encompass those who advocate for the release of those who have been kidnapped forcibly. Hafeez Baloch, a student at Quaid-I-Azam University, went missing in February 2022 with no trace of him. He was imprisoned in March 2022 on terrorist allegations that were ultimately proven to be false, and he was released on July 30, 2022. This is just one example that received attention as a result of the protests of his fellow students and activists. Others include Hidayatullah Lohar (a political activist from Sindh), Muhammad Amin (a political activist from Karachi), and Amin Khattak (a human rights activist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) who met the same fate. The recent arrest of iman Mazari, a lawyer and a political activist against enforced disappearances, is one glimpse of the matter in discussion. The recent legislations passed in haste have further paved ways for the current practice to aggravate, which will prove to be lethal towards the preservation of basic rights in Pakistan.

The state must not turn a blind eye to the anguish and suffering of these people and their families, who have been denied information about their loved ones for years. While listing the state’s policy preferences, the subject must be given importance and made a priority. The issue should not be regarded as a secondary order since it creates instability inside the state, allowing anti-state forces to dominate and ultimately weakening the state. There is an urgent need for such legislation and its implementation for the return of these persons, who should be tried in courts according to the constitution if any charges are brought against them. Such abductions will never be embraced by national or international human rights  authorities.

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Wajeeha Ashfaq is a student of political science at Quaid e Azam university, Islamabad.