South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

THE government might have been surprised at some foreign governments’ expressions of concern at the enforced disappearance of five social activists/ bloggers. Instead of taking umbrage, it should look for the causes of friendly countries’ uneasiness.


Hitherto, security concerns have enabled Pakistan to escape censure for enforced disappearances through a policy of denial. The five activists now in the news do not belong to any conflict zone (like Fata/ Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) or the home ground of insurgents (Balochistan) or crypto-separatists/ nationalists (Sindh). There is no reason in Punjab for anyone to flout the law. Hence, gross violation of basic rights causes widespread concern.

Besides, the international community has been watching enforced disappearances in Pakistan for many years.

In 2012, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Pakistan and made several recommendations, including calls for ratification of the convention on disappearances and criminalisation of enforced disappearances. In its report in July 2016, the WGEID regretted that most of its recommendations had not been implemented.

Pakistan’s third universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council is due.

Pakistan has also been asked to explain some issues arising from its initial report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. With reference to Articles 6, 7 and 9 of the covenant (the right to life, freedom from torture, and the right to liberty and security of person). Pakistan has been asked to “provide information on the measures taken to address the large number of allegations of enforced disappearance … comment on allegations that the practice of enforced disappearance is often used to target political or human rights activists. Please indicate what steps have been taken to implement the December 2013 judgement of the Supreme Court in the case of Mohabat Shah … Please provide information on the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, including on its mandate, power, composition and financial and human resources…”.

This year, Pakistan’s third universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council is due. Questions will be raised about implementation of the recommendations made after the 2012 review. Four recommendations relating to disappearances were made and Pakistan accepted all of them. Two recommendations that called for criminalisation of enforced disappearance and the strengthening of the Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances were included in the list of suggestions that “have already been implemented or [are] in the process of implementation”.

None of these recommendations have been implemented. It is not difficult to imagine the situation Pakistan will face at the coming universal periodic review. The government could say it does not mind becoming a pariah in the world. That will not harm any foreign party; only the people of Pakistan will be left to mourn the loss of their rights.

The government has itself to blame for the embarrassment it is going to face, for it had ample time to prevent it.

Six years ago, a commission of three retired judges found evidence of the intelligence agencies’ involvement in enforced disappearances and deplored the “uncivilised method adopted by the police and agencies’ personnel for arresting the victims” and denying them any contact with their families during their detention. The commission also recommended a fairly reasonable way out.

“In order to put an end to the issue of enforced disappearances/ missing persons,” the commission said, “the intelligence agencies should be restrained from arbitrarily arresting and detaining anyone without due process of law. Generally, it would be appropriate if the government evolves a mechanism for intelligence agencies to share information and leave it to the police to make arrests and proceed under the relevant law.”

What has prevented the government from accepting this sane piece of advice?

In January 2012, the Justice Saqib Nisar commission on the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad also tried to help the government. “If the agencies conduct their activities completely beyond the purview of the law, and without maintaining any sense of transparency and accountability in their conduct,” the commission said, “they risk losing their most precious strategic asset — the trust of the people, whose security they are supposed to ensure. Currently, it seems that we would be better off with more accountability than we presently have even when it means a little less of secrecy.”

Further, the commission suggested a mechanism for the accountability of intelligence agencies at three levels; “within the agency and before the minister-in-charge; before a Parliamentary Committee (and thus parliament and the public); and before a judicial forum”.

Now the Senate has forwarded to the government the draft of a law to regulate the working of intelligence agencies and declared that, if the government failed to sponsor the proposed legislation, it would be introduced in the house as a private member’s bill.

The government may ask itself a simple question: why does every attempt to probe the issue of enforced disappearance lead to calls for making the intelligence agencies accountable?

We are told now that the police are investigating a complaint that the five bloggers have been guilty of blasphemy. This reminds one of the strictures passed by the commission of 2010 on the police officers who were involved in such affairs and found guilty of “intellectual dishonesty by registering fake FIRs against the persons picked up by the intelligence agencies and handed over to the police after a long time”.

If those who picked up the five bloggers had good reason to deprive them of their right to liberty, they should have informed their families, allowed them to contact their counsel and produced them in a court of law within 24 hours, or explained the reasons for failing to do so. The foreign governments, the parliamentarians, and civil society are mature enough to respect proceedings held according to due process, and would only demand in such cases a fair trial and punishment of the guilty in proportion to the severity of their offence.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2017