The rapidly growing enforced disappearances in Pakistan
Author: Eva Bredenbeek
The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) stated that over more than 7000 enforced disappearances occurred in Pakistan since 2011, with over 700 enforced disappearances in 2019 alone (NHRF, 2021). However, victims’ families and independent groups claim the number to be much higher due to an insufficient reporting system. Enforced disappearance can be defined as abducting a person against their will, resulting in the person’s missing (UNGA, ICPAPED). It has been routinely practiced by Pakistani Security Forces since the so-called “war of Terror” in 2001. The cases have been growing ever since (Amnesty International, 2021). The individuals and groups most targeted by enforced disappearances are the minorities of Pakistani population: Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun ethnicities, the Shia community, and religious and nationalist groups (Amnesty International, 2019).
In regards to criminalization of this crime, Pakistan has proposed a draft bill including the Pakistan Penal Code amendments. These amendments attempt to end impunity of this crime and to slow down the rapidly growing enforced disappearance cases. However, before discussing this proposed bill, we must focus on the cases in Pakistan, the definition of the crime, and the international law provided.
Enforced disappearances in Pakistan
As enforced disappearances are mainly based on the victim’s ethnic and religious backgrounds, the victims are primarily the religious minorities of Pakistan (NHRF, 2021). An area in Pakistan where this becomes alarmingly clear is the province of Balochistan, with a remarkable rise of enforced disappearance cases. The Pakistani Security Forces reportedly abducted over sixteen people in Balochistan in July 2021 alone (ANI, 2021). The Pakistani Security Forces conduct the most enforced disappearances, who justify their actions as an essential national security tool. However, the Pakistan Security Forces mostly deny involvement in these disappearances; therefore, impunity remains (The Guardian, 2020). They refuse to provide information on the whereabouts, and sometimes even deny they abducted a person (Amnesty International, 2021). The culture of this impunity is further expanded due to the censorship of the Pakistani Media and the threats that comes with speaking about the enforced disappearances. This means lawyers, politicians, activists, and journalists become fearful of being abducted themselves (The Guardian, 2020).
With these enforced disappearances, families are broken up and sometimes outcasted from society, along with feelings of uncertainty and intense grief. Furthermore, families suffer economic, social, and cultural challenges. The health and education of the children in such grieving families have also been impacted (The International News, 2021). Economic challenges also arise, whereby a portion of household income disappears, and financial burdens grow. With this, also comes social challenges such as stigma, which may lead to the aforementioned social out casting. Women in particular cannot remarry or break their engagement without proving the death of their spouse, which leaves them neither a wife nor a widow (The Guardian, 2020).
With the lack of state action and the rise of cases, families and communities fear for their lives and those of their loved ones. On the International Day of the Victims of Disappearances 2021, the OHCHR has called upon states to address the victims’ economic, social, and cultural rights (The International News, 2021).
When looking at the legal definition of enforced disappearance, we must focus on the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED, 2006). This definition can be found in Article 2 of the Convention and is further described as:
Arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such a person outside the protection of the law. (Article 2, ICPPED, 2006)
This definition is provided by the United Nations and not ratified by Pakistan. However, focusing on the number of enforced disappearances, it remains clear that action is necessary. The UN working group on Enforced or Involuntary disappearances has provided a set of recommendations after their visit in 2012. However, these recommendations are not yet implemented nor considered (NHRF, 2021).
As a reaction to this long-standing demand to enforce actions against enforced disappearances, Pakistan has proposed amendments in the Pakistan Criminal Code in June 2021 (DAWN, 2021). These amendments involve the Pakistan Criminal Code and the Criminal Code of Procedure and await Senate approval. The proposed bill defines enforced disappearance in section 52.B, the criminal penalty in section 513, and the penalty of a false allegation of such crime in section 514 (DAWN, 2021). The definition of enforced disappearance provided in section 52.B. can be seen as similar to that mentioned above by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The penalty provided in the amendments, section 513, includes a 10 year prison sentence alongside a fine.
Furthermore, the amendments would allow criminal charges to be brought against anyone who has made a false allegation of enforced disappearance. This penalty could go up to five years imprisonment with a fine. Amnesty International (2021) criticized these amendments stating that it violates international human rights law. The deputy director of Amnesty International urges the Pakistani Parliament to reject the proposed bill and to pass a bill in line with international human rights and standards. This is because the bill would have various loopholes, and the criminalization of false allegations would greatly discourage people from reporting cases, especially considering that the Pakistan Security Forces mostly deny involvement and hold a particular political power (Amnesty International, 2021). Also, there is the challenge of apparent lack of evidence and information that comes along with these enforced disappearances. Therefore, if the Pakistani Senate passes the bill, there is still much discussion on its effectiveness and lawfulness.
Families of Pakistani minorities are confronted every single day with enforced disappearances, enormous fear, and grief. With that, political, economic, and social challenges come along. As a reaction to long-standing demands to implement actions against enforced disappearances, Pakistan has proposed amendments in the Pakistan Criminal Code. These amendments include the definition of enforced disappearance, penalization of the crime, and false allegations of the crime. These amendments further provide various loopholes and challenges on the community who can be criminalized for false allegations. This seems to once more sideline the affecting community to take action against these enforced disappearances. Therefore, it must still be shown how effective this new legislation would be; however, it may give the Pakistan Security Forces a loophole for their actions once more. With this, the families and victims are still left without justice.
UN General Assembly, International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 20 December 2006.
Pakistan: Penal Code [Pakistan], Act No. XLV, 6 October 1860.
“Enforced disappearances: on the rise in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province”. (14th of June, 2021). ANI. https: / /www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/enforced-disappearances-on-the-rise-in-pakistans-balochistan province20210614164650/
“Government to finally criminalise ‘Enforced Disappearance”. (15th of November, 2021). DAWN. https:// epaper.dawn.com/DetailNews.php?StoryText=15_11_2021_181_008
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