May 5th, 2021
By Asra Haque
In a letter addressed to the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in Geneva, Khalil-ur-Rehman Hashmi, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has brought attention to “a reported pattern of steady increase in the number of enforced disappearances of persons belonging to minorities, especially Sindhi minorities, political activists, journalists and human rights defenders in Sindh.”
The communication was penned by Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Tae-Ung Baik; Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan; Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor; Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayán; Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin; and Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Nils Melzer.
In relation to the reported practice of enforced disappearances in Pakistan, the letter also brought attention to an apparent pattern of impunity due to a persistent lack of effective and prompt investigations, and failure to bring culprits to justice. It expressed concern that due to the fact that the fact that these practices are so widespread and persistent, that they may be a reflection of a policy or tolerated by the authorities to the extent that it may be considered policy, either deliberately or by omission.
The communication highlighted a steady increase in the number of enforced disappearances in Sindh, a widespread phenomenon which, over the course of several decades, has targeted a high number of individuals belonging to the minority Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun and Shia communities residing in the province.
Moreover, it has been observed that a worrying number of political activists, human rights defenders, and individuals believed to hold sympathies with religious and nationalist groups in Pakistan have also been forcibly disappeared.
The enforced disappearances of activists and ethnic and religious minorities has been attributed to Pakistan’s Military Intelligence (MI), Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Sindh Rangers, Sindh Police and Intelligence Bureau (IB) in order to silence dissenting voices from minority communities in Pakistan.
It is understood that the aforementioned agencies are acting independently of the government’s directives, and that legislators as well as the judiciary are either unable or unwilling to take concrete steps to dissuade the practice and hold perpetrators accountable.
The letter held that in many missing persons cases, victims are abducted in broad daylight by uniformed security personnel or by men in police vehicles. Moreover, the victims’ families are not informed of the arrests and are denied access to information about the place of detention and the wellbeing of their disappeared relatives.
Recovered persons often exhibit glaring signs of torture during their detention, and are denied any explanation or the charges brought against them during their detention. They are also often unwilling to talk of their experiences, denounce the practice of enforced disappearances, or seek legal recourse for fear of being picked up again or other reprisals.
Moreover, the fear of being forcibly disappeared also dissuades political and cultural activities that may be considered illegitimate by the authorities illegitimate.
Missing persons are denied access to legal counsels. The communication further stated that there are no effective safeguards that extend protection to citizens or guarantee the ability to contest one’s illegal arrest and secret detention.
According to the UNHRC, an estimated 3,800 missing persons cases have been reported in Sindh alone. In some cases, the remains of victims were also discovered, however there has not been a single case till date in which not a single perpetrator was identified and litigated against.
The Government has failed to ensure effective measures to ensure prompt investigations to prevent enforced disappearances due to its unwillingness to hold the security and intelligence agencies accountable, resulting in a climate of impunity.
Families of missing persons are often subjected to intimidation, harassment and retaliation, and run the risk of also being disappeared, tortured and even killed for bringing the matter to the attention of local authorities, or local and international organizations.
“For women in particular, the disappearance of their husbands or other male relatives, often primary breadwinners, means a considerable impairment of their economic well-being, and brings with it financial burdens that affect them and their entire families,” the communication asserted.
It also took note of the ineffectiveness of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED), which was established in 2010 in tackling this issue due to the lack of effective and prompt investigation in missing person cases, the COEID’s lack of structural and functional independence, limited powers and authority, insufficient resources, inadequate protection afforded to witnesses and victims, and the lack of public reporting of its work.
The COIED reportedly located 982 missing persons by 2016 but failed to solve 1,273 other cases. As of 2019, it reported 2,178 unresolved cases, while figures collated by local organizations far exceed the COIED’s numbers.
The letter noted that although safeguards against enforced disappearances do exist per Pakistan’s laws, the practice itself is not regarded as an offence as it lacks adequate legal codification. The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1997 and the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO) of 2014 constitute the legal basis under which most arrests and detentions that constitute enforced disappearances are carried out and justified. The communication noted that that the ATA undermines constitutional protections against unlawful arrest and detention, and that law enforcement personnel are granted sweeping powers by the PPO as part of counter-terrorism measures.
The UNHRC reiterated that the state is obligated under international law to protect the human rights of, inter alia, persons belonging to minorities, as it is the right of every human being to be protected from enforced disappearance. The body also expressed alarm over the continued targeting of persons belonging to minorities in Sindh through the practice of enforced disappearances, a gross violation of human rights which often amounts to the crimes of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or arbitrary deprivation of life, all prohibited under international law.
“If confirmed, these allegations would be in violation of articles 2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, 18 19, 22 and 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Pakistan ratified on 23 June 2010; articles 2, 6, 12, 13, and 14 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), ratified by Pakistan on 23 June 2010; and articles 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, and 19 of the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance adopted by the General Assembly Resolution 47/133 of 18 December 1992,” the letter read, urging the Government of Pakistan to carefully examine the compatibility of its legislation with the country’s international human rights obligations, and review its policy and existing practices.
The UNHRC requested the Government to provide any additional information and any comment it may have on the above-mentioned allegations and indicate in detail what effective measures the Government has taken or intends to take to effectively curb enforced disappearances; ensure that all arrests and detentions are officially accounted for; that detained persons are given access to defense lawyers and their families; that they are afforded the protection of habeas corpus; that they are charged with recognizable criminal offences; that they are guaranteed the right to fair trial; and that an end is put to impunity and that adequate remedies is provided to the victims and their families.
The communication further sought information on specific cases where perpetrators of enforced disappearances in Sindh were held accountable, and if no such measures have been undertaken an explanation as to how this is compatible with Pakistan’s international human rights obligations. The Government must also supply the results of any investigation and judicial or other inquiries into the alleged pattern of enforced disappearances occurring in Sindh and their continued perpetuation, or an explanation if no such enquiries have been conducted and how this is compatible with international human rights obligations.
The Government was also asked to submit information on existing safeguards in the Pakistani legal system guaranteeing the protection against enforced disappearances as well as due process and prompt and effective investigation, and how these safeguards are effectively implemented under what mechanisms. Furthermore, the Government was also requested to detail the measures, if any, taken to facilitate the functioning of the COIED for it to effectively perform and increase the participation of victims, families, civil society organizations and others, such as lawyers, in its processes.
The letter also requested details on the measures taken by relevant authorities to ensure full protection and access to information to families and close associates seeking clarification as to the health and whereabouts of disappeared persons, as well as measures taken to ensure that journalists, political activists, human rights defenders, and other civil society actors are able to carry out their legitimate work in a safe and enabling environment in Pakistan, without fear of threats or acts of intimidation, harassment and violence of any sort.