Is it time for UN intervention on the missing persons in Balochistan?

Published: October 8, 2012
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Many of the families that filed cases with the provincial High Court or the Supreme Court were intimidated or received threats to prevent them from filing cases. PHOTO: EXPRESS

Recently, a UN Working Group concluded its 10 day visit to Pakistan. Amid controversy and criticism, the Group on Enforced Disappearances was tasked with mandate of investigating in “humanitarian spirit” the allegations of enforced disappearances or missing persons.

As a result of the findings, criminal proceedings cannot be initiated against those found to be guilty; however, a survey of modern history reveals that humanitarian motivations are not apolitical in their intent.

UN humanitarian missions have ranged from Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s, to most recently in Afghanistan and Libya. In most of these cases, the UN invoked its right to humanitarian intervention (typically this entailed military forces, a different mandate than the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances), when it alleged that governments failed to protect their own people.

The concept of any intervention on humanitarian grounds creates a tension on the notion of sovereignty. The pattern of intervention indicates that this is not just about invoking the right to protect, but exerting influence. The checkered account of intervention indicates that it has, in fact, caused harm, for example, it exacerbated ethnic tensions in Kosovo and failed to end genocide in Rwanda.

To say that the UN system is skewed towards the political aspirations of powerful nations within the international system is to utter old truths that despite new security threats have not really changed. However, taking these contradictions into account, Pakistan has maintained extensive relations with the UN system relying for extensive aid during emergency situations and for its development programs.

Pakistan’s multifaceted layer of engagement with the international system warrants more attention as does the question of the neo-colonial politics generated within this system. That is a debate that is always relevant, though the concern here is whether the probe on missing persons deserves the kind of insecurity and criticism that it has generated.

Does the probe add to existing knowledge on cases of missing persons in Balochistan? Can it allow for response to a crisis that is not merely provincial in nature, but impacts the fate of a larger set of national stakeholders?

In Balochistan alone, there are over 14,000 missing persons, while the provincial government only recognises less than a hundred. The UN report states that the number of officially registered allegations is an indicator of the gap between the reality of the situation and acknowledgement on behalf of state authorities.

A pattern can be identified in the cases of the missing according to the findings of the UN. The families of the missing testified that they are perpetrated by law enforcement agencies, such as the police or the Frontier Corps with the assistance of non-uniform agents from the intelligence services.

Many of the families that filed cases with the provincial High Court or the Supreme Court were intimidated or received threats to prevent them from filing cases. In certain cases, the lawyers defending the families of the missing were themselves abducted or victims of enforced disappearances. Many of those, whose whereabouts were previously unknown, were found with signs of torture.

The reports affirms that the courts have played an important role in initiating investigations, and in many instances the persons could be effectively traced, found, and be returned to family. In others, the court failed to summon an agent suspected to be involved in the disappearance. (The matter is sub-judice as the Chief Justice emphasised when refusing to meet with the UN team, so the court’s pending investigations should shed more light on a guarantee to fair trial).

The UN Working Group asserts that military personnel cannot be submitted to trial before civilian courts. This may constitute as a factor of impunity for human rights violations and should be changed. This is perhaps the most contentious clause of the recommendations and likely to be considered heresy within the corridors of the establishment.

In a letter published by a member of the military in the English press, it was argued that,

“The issue is not how these persons go missing. The real issue is why they go missing. If we can find the answer to the ‘why’, we may be able to do something about the ‘how’ and the ‘by whom’.”

The most probable answer to this why is the failure of a system of law to charge and convict those that operate outside its ambit: this includes state and non-state actors, security agents and terrorists. The importance of the legal processes is discarded in the statement above, and indicative of the problem at hand. Until there is an institutionalisation of law at all tiers, violations will continue to occur.

The call for oversight of law enforcement may be infringement on our sovereignty, but a strong national debate has vehemently been highlighting the importance of such accountability.

The insecurity caused by the probe on missing persons is reflective of the state’s recognition that it has not been effectively able to prescribe preventive measures for those (individuals and institutions, state and non-state actors) that continue to flaunt the importance of legal systems, structures and processes.

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Fatima Mujtaba

Fatima Mujtaba

A graduate of New York University, Fatima is interested in culture, politics and literature. She enjoys engaging both in the 'Pakistani' and global dialectic and now works in the development sector in Islamabad.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.