As the world marks the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance today (Aug 30), South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, calls on the governments in South Asia to:
- Ratify and implement the International Convention for Protection of all persons from enforced disappearance.
- Enact legislation making enforced disappearances a crime under national law in line with international standards.
- Take all necessary measures to eliminate the inhumane practice of involuntary and enforced disappearances and bring perpetrators to justice
- Respect the right of families of victims of enforced disappearances to know the whereabouts of their loved ones or the truth regarding their status
- Implement programs for providing reparation to all victims, including their family members.
The following is a brief summary of the situation in the region with regard to enforced or involuntary disappearances: Of the 8 countries in the region, so far, only Sri Lanka has ratified the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. India and Maldives signed it in 2007 and have not ratified yet. Further, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have not made any progress at all.
Enforced disappearances continue to date in Afghanistan, where some victims have been missing for the past four decades. Afghanistan has left thousands of people without any information of the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones. Many were forcibly disappeared when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power in the late 1970s. Since then, enforced disappearances remained a constant feature of the Soviet invasion that followed, the civil war that ensued after the Soviet retreat and under the Taliban’s rule. In 2018, a list of 5000 people, who were killed by PDPA regime, was published by the Dutch Government.
The biannual report by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) released on 17 April 2019 revealed that enforced disappearances in Kandahar, which may number in the hundreds since 2010, continue to be reported. Since 2013, ICRC has initiated a website in the name of “Trace the Face” enabling Afghan families to gather news about their family members from whom they have no news, while only knowing they were immigrated to European countries. Though the Afghan government through a presidential decree (345 issued in 2018) endorsed the role and responsibilities of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), but there has not been any further steps in this regard.
According to the Paris based International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR/FIDH), between 2009-2018, the first two terms of the Awami League (AL) led Grand Alliance government, which returned to power for a third consecutive term at the beginning of 2019, around 507 people have become victims of enforced disappearances. Further, IFHR said among them, 62 people were later found dead while 286 returned alive and the where-abouts of 159 is still unknown.
According to the UNWGIED’s report on its 118th session in May 2019, it has observed with concern of receiving reports of new cases of alleged enforced disappearance in Bangladesh and the lack of replies from the Government regarding its cases and communications.
India has not made enforced disappearances a specific criminal offence in its penal code. As a result, families of the “disappeared” have to file complaints under general provisions of Indian criminal law. The UNWGIED in its report on 118 session mentions about 17 cases that have been transmitted to the Government in 2019, all of them occurring in Jammu & Kashmir.
In November 2018, President Solih established a Presidential Commission to investigate on unresolved murders and disappearances and look into the abduction of Journalist Ahmed Rilwan who has been missing since 2014. On the 5th year of his enforced and involuntary disappearance, in August 2019, Rilwan’s family released a press statement expressing concerns of delays in providing answers as pledged when the current administration came to power in November 2018.
According to the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction 15,030 persons were enforced or involuntarily disappeared during the conflict. The Nepal Government in February 2015 established the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) to find the truth and provide justice to the victims but concerns. Civil Society Organisations have expressed concerns on the lack of transparency in appointing the Commissioners. It was reported in January 2019 that the commission had received more than 3,000 complaints and it recommended to conduct detailed investigations for over 2,500 complaints. However, the commission has been strongly criticised for lack of progress in their mandated duties as well as for their independence and credibility.
The number of enforced disappearances is commonly believed to be underreported. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) formed in 2011, has not made much progress no adequate measures have been taken to curb this practice. By June 2019 COIED has had a total number of 6156 cases. There are 2218 cases which are unresolved as on 30 June 2019. Amnesty International states that UNWGIED has more than 700 cases pending from Pakistan.
The groups and individuals targeted in enforced disappearances in Pakistan include people from Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun ethnicities, the Shia community, political activists, human rights defenders, members and supporters of religious and nationalist groups, suspected members of armed groups, and proscribed religious and political organizations in Pakistan. Further, families of the victims who have been campaigning against their loved ones’ involuntary disappearances have been particularly harassed and are traumatized state.
On a more positive note, in January 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan approved a proposal to amend the Pakistan’s Penal Code to declare enforced disappearance as a criminal offence.
Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances, with a backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 alleged disappearances since the late 1980s. In March, 2018, criminalised enforced disappearances and established the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) as well as the Office of Reparations.
However, families of victims who disappeared in the 30 year civil war and in the immediate aftermath of its end, mostly women, in north and east have been protesting continuously more than 900 days demanding justice. The protestors are intimidated by the security forces and are under constant surveillance by the government. So far, several women protestors have died without knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones. The current Government which promised a reconciliation process to such families of victims of involuntary disappearances has not yet launched a sustainable and effective process to redress or bring justice to them.
On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights,