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MISSING PERSONS CONUNDRUM

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By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal                                                 

United Nations’ ‘Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances’, one of the “thematic procedures” of the United Nations Human Rights Council has arrived. Hopefully’ it will help us in demystifying the issue of ‘missing persons’. In the prevalent setting of narratives and counter narratives it is difficult to come out with a report that could satisfy everyone. Nevertheless, issue of missing persons is a serious matter impinging upon the fundamental ‘right to life’. Matter certainly needs a dispassionate and transparent revisit by a credible agency.

This team, led by Professor Olivier de Frouville, will tour all provincial headquarters to gather information. Experts will analyse and review the “measures adopted by the state to prevent and eradicate enforced disappearances, including issues related to truth, justice and reparation for the victims of enforced disappearances”. The Group has arrived in Pakistan at the invitation of the government. Olivier Frouville said that mission was neither an investigative nor fact-finding but its mandate was to ‘act as a bridge between the families of missing persons and concerned governments.’

Government of Pakistan has indeed taken a bold step to invite the mission. This indicates that government is quite confident that its viewpoint and the figures would be able to stand an objective scrutiny. Either way, the mission would be useful: if it corroborates the government point of view, it would automatically discredit the unrealistic claims being put forward by the disgruntled lot on the behest of their pay masters; and if it does not, it would provide a constructive impetus to the ongoing campaign to resolve the issue.

“The visit of the group will provide an opportunity to highlight the efforts being undertaken by the government to address this important issue and to further improve the relevant procedures”, the foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement. The mission will meet members of the civil society, media, jurists and officials from the foreign and interior ministries.

During her briefing to the mission, foreign minister has expressed the hope that the working group would reflect in its report commitment of the government and efforts of the independent judiciary, free media and civil society for protection of human rights in Pakistan. She said, “The government takes the issue of disappearances seriously and makes efforts to strengthen domestic mechanisms to address it and ensure rule of law…As many as 91 countries were working with UN Human Rights Group”. However, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN Abdullah Hussain Haroon has shrugged off the idea: “The Supreme Court is hearing the missing persons’ issue. I do not understand why the foreign office felt the need to invite them at this point. Pakistan should solve its own problems without foreign intervention”.

Presumably, government would conduct the team in a professional and transparent manner, while facilitating unhindered access to aggrieved families. Equally important is to safeguard the sanctity of the mission by screening it from demagogues and political opportunists. Some international and Pakistani human rights groups claim that thousands of people have been kidnapped and detained in secret prisons in the past decade, allegedly by security forces. However, official point of view is quite different.

There are certain causes which have led to this gory state of affairs. Traditionally feudal lords and tribal chieftain maintain private jails which are absolutely illegal; yet in practice. Brick kilns and some other work places practice bonded labours, again illegal and a declining practice; yet managers of these businesses are notorious for detaining their labourers on allegations of not fulfilling the terms of bond.  

Moreover, there are people who have died in suicide attacks, other terrorist related incidents and drone attacks, and their bodies got mutilated beyond recognition; then there are criminals who are proclaimed offenders and they go underground. Another category is of those who cross over to Afghanistan to fight the occupation forces in support of their ethnic and sectarian lineages.  As most of such people remain out of communication with their families for extended periods, they presume them as missing.

Over and above is the issue of missing persons in Baluchistan. This is where humanitarian aspect and political motivations criss-cross the paths. UN mission will have to be extra careful while handling this portion of its task. Mission may start its work by probing into proxy arrests and renditions done in the context of war on terror, on behest of Americans. Presumably some of the victims are languishing in American jails the world over, without a formal declaration of arrest of such people; hence they are presumed as missing by their kin and kith. It would be interesting for the commission to note that despite the hype of involuntary disappearances in Baluchistan, province wise figures indicate that Sindh suffers the most from this agony. Interior of Sindh has a feudal system which is not a very distant cousin of the tribal system of Baluchistan.

Chief Justice of Pakistan has made a prudent decision to keep away from the UN team, saying that the matter is sub-judice. Supreme Court’s concerted investigation about the missing persons is the latest effort aimed at holding the military and intelligence agencies accountable for alleged arrests and disappearances. It is an unprecedented effort that has exposed the myth that the ISI operates above the law.

Hopefully, the government appointed ‘Commission on Missing Persons’, headed by Justice (Retd) Javed Iqbal, would interact with the UN team and defend its figures and position about the missing persons. Justice (Retd) Javed Iqbal has already met the working group in Geneva in March. Addressing a news conference in Quetta on June 09, Justice Iqbal had said that foreign intelligence agencies wanted to deteriorate the situation of Baluchistan in order to destabilise Pakistan. He  said that the total number of missing persons stood at 460, including 18 from Islamabad, 117 from Punjab, 174 from Sindh, 170 from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and 57 from Baluchistan while 12 each from Azad Kashmir and FATA. He further said that 42 bodies of missing persons were found in Baluchistan, and claimed that foreign intelligence agencies were involved in the crime.

Justice Iqbal had regretted that the authorities have not been able to compile the complete details of those who were enlisted as missing persons. “There is a baseless propaganda about the actual figure of missing persons in the country.” He further said that the list also contained the names of those living abroad and also those who have been involved in terrorism related cases. He added that the federal and provincial governments and secret agencies are cooperating with the judicial commission.

Earlier, on February 11, 2012,  IG, FC Baluchistan, Major  General Obaid Khan had strongly rejected the impression that FC was involved in missing persons or dead bodies’ issues. According to his data about Baluchistan, there were only 46 missing persons. IGFC should have volunteered to present his side of the story to the working group.

A common Pakistani has expectations from the UN team. These are: professional approach to the issue and sifting facts from the fiction, draw a criteria based line between voluntary and involuntary disappearances; and finally providing a helping hand rather than degenerating into a Pakistan bashing exercise.

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