In June 2013, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Munir Malik as the new Attorney General. One month into his appointment, Malik reported to the Pakistani Supreme Court that over 500 disappeared persons are being held in security agency custody. This information came after years of Pakistan’s denial that security agencies were involved in cases of enforced disappearances. For years, organizations such as Human Rights Watch have called upon the government to investigate and address the patterns of enforced disappearances throughout the country. However, estimates detailing the exact number of enforced disappearances vary greatly, and reports identify the number of disappeared as ranging between a few hundred and 23,000. Though enforced disappearances occur throughout Pakistan, these events occur most frequently in Pakistan’s southernmost region of Balochistan, which neighbors Afghanistan to the north and Iran to the West. According to a recent publication by the Asian Human Rights Commission, over 400 disappearances occurred in Balochistan between July 2010 and the end of 2012.
Human rights concerns in Balochistan are often rooted in the region’s continuing desire for independence from Pakistan. Pro-independence rebels claim that for decades, Balochistan has been treated as a colony rather than a part of Pakistan. Many of the disappeared are linked with the independence movement or have links to the local media.
Efforts by the Pakistani Senate and statements of Malik and Baloch suggest that Pakistani decision makers may soon take action to address these enforced disappearances. On August 30, 2013, Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and other nongovernmental organizations called on Pakistan to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Disappearance Convention) in honor of the third annual United Nations International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances (Day of Victims). Last year, Pakistan deferred ratification of the convention, which was drafted in 2006 and states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance.”
The Convention supplements the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Enforced disappearances raise concerns about the right to life, which Pakistan is obliged to promote and protect under both of these fundamental human rights instruments. The ICCPR defines the right to life as “the ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want [that] can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his economic, social and cultural rights.” The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ General Comment 6 also calls upon state parties to prevent enforced disappearances that frequently result in “arbitrary deprivation of life.” General Comment 6 also identified states’ obligation to “establish effective facilities and procedures to investigate thoroughly cases of missing and disappeared persons in circumstances which may involve a violation of the right to life.”
Both the Pakistani Senate and Balochistan’s new Chief Minister are now starting to take action to address enforced disappearances. In early September 2013, the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights requested information from the Pakistani government related to enforced disappearances and powers given to paramilitary forces. The Senate Committee also discussed proposing a bill related to these disappearances in the Senate’s next session, and Chairman Afrasiab Khattak stated, “legislation on enforced disappearances would be in the interest of the security agencies as it would save them from accusations.” While Chief Minister Baloch has yet to announce concrete steps towards battling these disappearances, he may begin by addressing Pakistan’s counterterrorism laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 and the FATA/PATA Action (that aids civil powers) that the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances found to allow arbitrary deprivations of liberty, enabling enforced disappearances. For now, Baloch has called on the Pakistani military to end human rights violations as a prelude to government talks on the issue of Balochistan.
During her 2012 mission to Pakistan, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that, “[t]he issue of disappearances in Balochistan has become a focus for national debate, international attention and local despair, and I encourage a really determined effort by the Government and judiciary to investigate and resolve these cases.” Balochistan’s new Chief Minister Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch, who took office in June 2013, is an ethnic Baloch, who has claimed that “the issue of missing persons is the number one problem of Balochistan.”