Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan

The News on Sunday, a weekly magazine in Pakistan, reported on 2 August that the country’s Human Rights Commission had condemned the killing of a man in the southern province of Sindh who had been arrested by uniformed security forces. The headline of the piece was “Sindh: A new Balochistan?” and the article cited the incident as possible evidence of a wave of enforced disappearances throughout the country. Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, though it has a population of just under 10 million. Since 2003, a nationalist movement has sustained a drive for independence, reviving historical claims that enjoy considerable support. The central government has responded in a manner that has generally been described as heavy-handed. Sindh, which borders Balochistan, is Pakistan’s most populous province; its largest city, Karachi, is the commercial capital of the country. The prospect of Sindh following Balochistan in terms of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings is a frightening one.

A decree issued in 2011 greatly increases the power of the security forces in Pakistan to arrest and detain citizens without trial, expanding powers that had been introduced under the military government of Perwaiz Musharaf in the wake of 9-11. Activists say that erosion of civil liberties has intensified since the restoration of democracy in 2008.

Another news report in August noted that as many as 17,000 cases have been brought before special Anti-Terrorism Courts that were empowered to try suspected militants after Taliban gunmen massacred 134 children at an army-run school in December 2014. Most of the cases brought before the special courts, however, appear to be unrelated to terrorist offences. Instead, critics argue, they reflect a government policy of using anti-terrorism as a pretext for measures that allow officials to act with impunity. On 5 August Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the special courts are legal and can pass death sentences on civilians. This may be viewed as particularly significant since the country’s courts have been viewed as the most effective bulwark of civil liberties, repeatedly instructing the military authorities to register and report those being held in custody, to ensure humane treatment and to allow access to family and legal representation.

The Pakistan Human Rights Commission reports that Pakistan has executed more people in the past seven months than Saudi Arabia, with 196 executions since the lifting of a moratorium in December 2014.

In August, the head of the MQM political party, which is a dominant force in Karachi, claimed that his party workers were being arrested as part of a police crackdown on organized crime. MQM leader Altaf Hussain expressed skepticism about Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar’s assertion that there would be no “extra judicial killings and missing persons”.

The long-term response of the courts to the conduct of the government and the armed forces indicates that the legal system retains an important degree of traction in a society that has been wracked by multiple social, political and military pressures – rapid population growth accompanied by only fitful economic development, a number of domestic separatist pressures – including the current campaign in Balochistan – and the war on terror template that has applied since 9-11.

The use of extraordinary force raises multiple issues regarding the rights of citizens in a democracy in peacetime. Intervention by military and para military groups is typically accompanied by arguments that the rights and necessities of society outweigh the rights of individuals – if a few innocent people are hurt in the war against terror, this is acceptable in a struggle that affects the destinies of millions.

In Pakistan the courts have insisted on minimum legal standards being applied to each and every case, an assertion of legal principle that is in direct contradiction to arguments based on “reasons of state”.

In this respect the legal struggle to protect citizens in Pakistan against enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings and the effort to ensure that military and government officials are subject to legal restraint reflects a global debate. Governments argue the need for a “forthright” response to terrorism while civil society typically insists that any response must be governed by law. The lesson of Pakistan in the last decade suggests that without adequate legal restraint, “forthright” government action is likely to be unjust. I is also likely to be ineffective, except in those cases where it is positively counterproductive.