April 23, 2024

Balochistan: Land of Forced Disappearances

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By: Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd), Editor, GSDN

Pakistan: source mapsofindia.com


Balochistan which is the largest of the four provinces of Pakistan by area, has the ignominy of forced disappearances dating back to the 1970s. However, since the early 2000s, enforced disappearances and alleged extrajudicial killings have become a vital tool of Pakistan’s counter-insurgency policy in Balochistan. During these decades, the victims’ families have sometimes received sympathy but never justice. The Pakistani policy towards the problem of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings has remained one of inaction, but its stance on the issue switches between denial and justification. The rise in forced disappearances in Balochistan has created a grave humanitarian crisis and clouded the socio-political environment of the area. People disappear without a trace, leaving families in turmoil and communities paralyzed by dread and uncertainty.

These people are frequently targeted for their alleged activism or opposition. The disappearances are said to have been planned by governmental agencies and are systematic in nature, which highlights long-standing problems with human rights abuses, governance, and the degradation of civil freedoms. It is critical to promote accountability, openness, and the defense of basic rights as the world community brings attention to this urgent problem. A coordinated effort is needed to address the issue of forced disappearances in Balochistan in order to protect human dignity, respect the rule of law, and create an environment where everyone feels trusted and treated fairly.

History of Forced Disappearances

The history of forced disappearances in Balochistan is deeply entrenched in the region’s tumultuous socio-political narrative, with numerous documented cases highlighting a pattern of systematic human rights abuses. While exact figures are challenging to ascertain due to the clandestine nature of these disappearances, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have extensively documented numerous cases.

According to Amnesty International’s reports, between 2009 and 2019, over 1,200 cases of enforced disappearances were reported in Balochistan. These cases often involve individuals, including activists, journalists, and students, who are allegedly, abducted by the Pakistani security forces or intelligence agencies. Many of them are held incommunicado, without any official acknowledgment of their detention or whereabouts, denying them access to legal representation or due process.

Human Rights Watch has also raised alarm over the situation in Balochistan, noting a disturbing trend of disappearances and extrajudicial killings targeting Baloch nationalists, students, and intellectuals. The organization’s reports indicate a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation, with families of the disappeared facing harassment and intimidation when seeking information about their loved ones.

The issue of forced disappearances in Balochistan gained international attention in 2011 when the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances raised concerns about the alarming number of cases in the region. Despite calls for accountability and justice, perpetrators continue to operate with impunity, exacerbating tensions and perpetuating a cycle of violence and distrust. The history of forced disappearances in Balochistan underscores the urgent need for a transparent and impartial investigation into these grave human rights violations.

Addressing this issue requires concerted efforts from both the Pakistani government and the international community to uphold the rule of law, protect fundamental rights, and ensure accountability for those responsible for these heinous crimes against humanity.

Shocking Statistics of Forced Disappearances

Forced disappearances in Pakistan originated during the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf tenure as the President of Pakistan from 1999 to 2008. The practice continued during subsequent governments. The term missing persons is sometimes used as a euphemism. According to Amina Masood Janjua, a human rights activist and chairperson of Defence of Human Rights Pakistan, there are more than 5,000 reported cases of forced disappearance in Pakistan. Human rights activists allege that the law enforcement agencies in Pakistan are responsible for the cases of forced disappearance in Pakistan. Since 2011, the government of Pakistan established a Commission to investigate cases of enforced disappearance in Pakistan. The Commission reports that it has received 7,000 cases of enforced disappearance since its inception and it claims to have resolved around 5,000 of those cases.

The year 2022 was a dreadful year for Balochistan as Pakistan Army, forcibly disappeared 629, extrajudicially killed 195 and tortured 187 people, according to the annual report released by Paank, the human rights organization of the Baloch National Movement.

The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances convened by the Pakistan Government, records 2,752 active cases of enforced disappearances in the province as of January 2024, but Pakistan’s interim Prime Minister claimed in a recent interview with the BBC that only about 50 people are missing.

Futile Protests

Amina Masood Janjua, a human rights activist and chairperson of Defence of Human Rights Pakistan, has stated that there are more than 5,000 reported cases of forced disappearance in Pakistan. Defence of Human Rights Pakistan is a not-for-profit organization working against forced disappearance in Pakistan. The families of missing persons have also staged protest across Pakistan demanding to know the whereabouts their missing family members. The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a non-profit organisation representing family members of those who disappeared in Balochistan, says approximately 7,000 cases have been registered with them since 2004.

Complicity of Pakistan Security Forces in Forced Disappearances

There are a number of complicated elements at play when it comes to Pakistani troops’ involvement in forced disappearances in Balochistan. The following are some explanations for why Pakistani soldiers would be drawn to or participating in such activities:

Counterinsurgency Operations: There has been a protracted insurgency movement in Balochistan, with several nationalist organizations of the Baloch people calling for increased autonomy or independence from Pakistan. Targeting activists, suspected separatists, and supporters, the Pakistani military and intelligence services may use forced disappearances as a means of stifling criticism and putting an end to conflict.

Threat to National Security:   Because of their support for separatist or suspected connections to militant activity, some people or organizations in Balochistan may be seen by Pakistani authorities as a threat to the country’s security. Therefore, the government may use forced disappearances.

Retaining Control and Authority:   Pakistani military may use forced disappearances as a means of quashing opposition and generating terror in Balochistan. This will help them to hold onto power and keep control over the area. Disappearances can create an environment of dread that deters activism and opposition, which helps the state achieve its goal of general stability.

Refusal of Rights and Resources:  Natural resources abound in Balochistan, including minerals, gas, and strategically located ports. Due to the Pakistani state’s need to keep control over these resources, possible challenges to resource extraction and economic exploitation may be avoided by using forced disappearances as a means of suppressing opposition.

Causes of Forced Disappearance

The intricate socio-political dynamics of Balochistan are at the core of the many factors contributing to forced disappearances in the province. The frequency of forced disappearances in Balochistan is attributed to the following causes:

Political turmoil and Nationalist Movements:   Balochistan has a history of nationalist movements and political turmoil as they strive for increased independence or autonomy from Pakistan. Crackdowns and other forms of repression. Forced disappearances of suspected separatists, activists, and supporters, are frequently used by the state in reaction to these movements.

Counterinsurgency operations and military operations:   To suppress separatist organizations and preserve authority over the province, Pakistani intelligence and military forces carry out counterinsurgency operations in Balochistan. The local populace is frequently intimidated, information is gathered, and resistance is quelled through the use of enforced disappearances.

Lack of Accountability and Impunity : The culture of impunity surrounding forced disappearances in Balochistan allows those who commit these crimes, like as intelligence services and state security forces, to act without worrying about facing consequences. Violence and abuse are perpetuated by a cycle of impunity for human rights abuses.

Regional diversity:   Tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as between Baloch nationalists and other ethnic groups are examples of the ethnic and sectarian diversity of Balochistan. Conflicts can be made worse by these tensions, which can also serve as an excuse for governmental persecution and forced disappearances. The geopolitical aspects of forced disappearances are further complicated by Balochistan’s advantageous location since it borders both Afghanistan and Iran. State and non-state entities could operate differently in the region due to regional rivalries, security issues, and international interests.

The Way Forward to stop Forced Disappearance

Reforms to Law and Policy:   Pakistan Government should pass and implement laws that clearly forbid forced disappearances. Laws now in place must to be changed to guarantee responsibility and openness in situations involving forced disappearances.

Independent Inquiries:    Form impartial task groups or commissions to look into claims of forced disappearances. It is important to provide these committees with sufficient funding, power, and autonomy so they can carry out in-depth, objective investigations.

Accountability:           Ensure that those responsible for forced disappearances face just trials and follow the proper procedures. This involves bringing charges against state representatives, security guards, or anybody else in charge of directing or carrying out forced disappearances.

Judicial Reforms:        To ensure prompt and unbiased decision-making in situations involving forced disappearances, the judiciary should be strengthened. Educate judges, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel about human rights norms and practices. Ensuring openness in detention institutions and providing relatives and legal representatives with updates on the location of imprisoned persons are important aspects of information sharing.

Support for Victims and Families:     Offer psychological support, financial aid, and legal assistance to victims and their families who have been subjected to forced disappearances. Encourage civil society organizations to keep an eye out for and report instances of enforced disappearances. Guard journalists, activists, and human rights advocates who stand up for the rights of victims.

Resolution of Conflicts and Dialogue :           Hold meaningful discussions and agreements with impacted communities to address the underlying issues and disputes that give rise to forced disappearances. Ensure fair development in Balochistan by addressing socioeconomic disparities.

Pressure and Support from the International Community:    Work to bring attention to the problem of forced disappearances in Balochistan by interacting with the UN and human rights groups, among other international bodies. For projects aimed at increasing capacity, look for technical help and advice.

Preventive measures include enforcing proper oversight of security forces, encouraging respect for human rights within law enforcement, and increasing public awareness of the ramifications of enforced disappearances. The goal is to prevent forced disappearances from happening in the first place.

Reforms to Pakistani Laws:    In order to make forced disappearances clearly illegal and hold those responsible accountable, Pakistan may pass new laws or make changes to current ones. It is important to have well-defined legal frameworks and investigative and prosecution procedures.

Institutional Accountability:    It is imperative to bolster the institutions in charge of security and law enforcement. This involves steps to guarantee accountability, transparency, and monitoring within these organizations in order to stop abuses like enforced disappearances.

Discussion and Reconciliation: Opening up communication with Baloch nationalist organizations and resolving their complaints amicably may serve to calm tensions and aid in resolving the fundamental issues that give rise to conflict, which may in turn assist to minimize the number of enforced disappearances.

Global Collaboration: In order to tackle the problem of enforced disappearances, Pakistan can go to the United Nations and human rights agencies for support. Exchange of best practices, technical assistance, and capacity-building projects are a few examples of collaboration with foreign partners.

Engaging the Civil Society:   It is crucial to support and foster the work that human rights advocates, civil society groups, and independent media perform in tracking down, recording, and denouncing enforced disappearances. Additionally, it is critical to defend the rights of journalists and activists covering these topics.

Assistance for Victims and Families: Offering legal counsel, psychological assistance, and rehabilitation programs to those who have been subjected to forced disappearances can help mitigate the pain and lingering consequences of these events.

Mechanisms for Accountability and Transparency:  Establishing procedures for keeping open and honest records of arrests and detentions, along with making sure that families and legal counsel are kept informed, can help avoid instances of enforced disappearances and hold offenders accountable.

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