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Malik Siraj Akbar Headshot

Disappearances in Pakistan: The U.N. Mission Must Succeed

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An extraordinary 10-day visit of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to Pakistan, taking place from September 10 to 20, has left the country's right-wing political leaders and nationalist media utterly paranoid. They fear that once the barely told story of widespread disappearances gains international attention, Pakistan's reputation will be enormously damaged.

This visit may give impetuous to international calls to the Pakistani government to end suspected extrajudicial practices and punish officials responsible for the countless cases of forced disappearance mainly in the gas-rich province of Balochistan. Security forces allegedly carry out these disappearances in order to suppress a political movement that calls for a separate homeland for the Baloch people. Hundreds of the missing persons have been tortured to death during the custody in what human rights groups describe as 'kill and dump' operations. Pakistan's civilian government is too fragile to end the flagrant impunity enjoyed by the members of the powerful military who misuse their authority and apply torturous tactics against politically active dissenting civilians.

Represented by Olivier de Frouville, the Chair-Rapporteur, and by Mr. Osman El-Hajjé, member, the Working Group, according to an official statement, "will gather information on cases of enforced disappearances... will also study the measures adopted by the State to prevent and eradicate enforced disappearances, including issues related to truth, justice and reparation for the victims of enforced disappearances."

"The Working Group will visit various parts of the country and meet with State officials, both at the federal and provincial levels, as well as with representatives of civil society organizations, relatives of disappeared persons and representatives of relevant UN agencies."

For several years, Pakistani officials have blatantly lied to the international community about the actual whereabouts of thousands of citizens, mostly political activists and university students, who mysteriously disappeared during the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008). The government had managed for nearly a decade to conceal the grave violation of human rights in Balochistan with the collusion of the Pakistani media subservient to the military's policies.

Human rights groups like the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Asian Human Rights Commission have actively campaigned to draw attention toward unending cases of enforced disappearance. The issue also echoed in the U.S. Congress during a hearing on Balochistan. Pakistan has repeatedly rejected reports by the human rights groups and also the Congressional hearing in February 2012 that urged Pakistan to respect the indigenous people's right to self-determination.

The civilian government headed by the Pakistan People's Party has come under intense criticism from pro-military politicians and newspaper columnists for inviting the Working Group to Pakistan.

"The United Nations does not have sympathetic feelings for the Muslim world," wrote Irfan Siddiqui, a former presidential press secretary turned conservative columnist in Jang, Pakistan's most widely read Urdu language newspaper, "The U.N. is in fact a tool in the hands of the United States... The Working Committee is being used as an effective tool against the Pakistan army, government and intelligence agencies." Another newspaper, the Pakistan Observer, went on to the extent of asking who issued visas to the U.N. team.

The Working Groups' visit has generated such excitement among the families of the missing persons and opposition leaders that the government is now endeavoring to circumscribe its significance. Pakistan's Chief Justice Ifthakar Mohammad Chaudhary has stunned admirers for refusing to meet with the missions. The Chief Justice often manipulates the issue of the disappearances to increase his own popularity and pit the Supreme Court against the Parliament. The Chief Justice does not want to annoy the military by agreeing to meet with the UN mission.

Hina Rabbani Khar, the foreign minister, has assured the national parliament that the mission is "not a fact-finding team." The interior minister, Rehman Malik, says, "the mission has no mandate to investigate any issue. The government would not allow any agency to interfere in country's internal affairs."

Regardless of the outcome of the Working Group, the Pakistani authorities' overreaction is outrageous. The government has reacted so madly that it has begun to kill more missing persons during custody. According to Jang, on September 10, when the U.N. mission arrived in Pakistan, the bullet-riddled dead bodies of three more missing persons were found in Balochistan's Kalat district. The families of the missing persons also complain that the Pakistani authorities are unwilling to provide them ample time to meet the mission to discuss in detail the cases of their loved ones. They also blame Pakistani officials, who have been assigned to meet the U.N. team, for distortion of the ground realities and keeping the mission in absolute darkness about the exact figures of those who have been forced to disappear.

The Working Group's visit to Pakistan is a breakthrough for victims' families and opposition parties whose activists have suffered enormously because of the illegal practices in Pakistan. The Chief Justice's refusal to meet the mission and the position adopted by the government and the media is disappointing. It clearly shows the officials' indifference to the pressing issue of disappearance. Such behavior should convince the authorities at the United Nations that repressive regimes across the world regularly cite 'internal matters' as an excuse to provide accountability for their crimes against citizens.

Besides the United Nations, the United States government, the European Union and NATO should also continue sending such missions to Pakistan to make sure that those living in the periphery are not abused by dominant communities. The international community must protect the rights of oppressed people, such as the Balochs in Pakistan, whose government has turned hostile and abusive against them. Human rights abuses must not be overlooked or seen as one country's domestic matter. The U.N. mission to Pakistan should not afford to fail. It should lead to the happy reunion of thousands of Pakistani disappeared citizens with their awaiting families.

The views expressed in his article are personal and do not reflect the policy of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) where the writer is currently a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow.