End Pakistan’s Enforced Disappearances

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Relatives hold placards and photos of missing family members during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 20, 2021. 
© 2021 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meeting last week with families of people who had been forcibly disappeared was an important step toward addressing this serious and longstanding issue. He now needs to follow up on his pledge to end this abuse once and for all.

Families staged a sit-in in Islamabad in February during which they held up photos of relatives who they said had been detained by security forces before disappearing. They demanded the government provide information on their whereabouts.

The protesters ended the sit-in after Prime Minster Khan agreed to meet with a delegation from the group. At the March 18 meeting, he directed his office to “ascertain quickly the exact status of the missing family members” and assured the families they would be kept updated. The federal minister for human rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari, said the prime minister also vowed that a draft law to criminalize enforced disappearances would be “fast-tracked.” The proposed law has languished at the draft stage for more than two years.

International human rights law strictly prohibits enforced disappearances, the detention of an individual in which the state denies holding the person or refuses to provide information on their fate or whereabouts.  In addition to the grave harm to the person, enforced disappearances cause continuing suffering for family members.

In January, the Islamabad High Court, after hearing a petition on a disappearance case from 2015, ruled that the prime minister and his cabinet were responsible for the state’s failure to protect its citizens “because the buck stops at the top.” The court called enforced disappearances “the most heinous crime and intolerable.”

Pakistani authorities, including law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system, have long failed to demonstrate the political will to end enforced disappearances. Prime Minister Khan’s promises offer the victims’ families a glimmer of hope, but much more needs to be done. He now has an opportunity to signal to Pakistanis and the world that his government is intent on ending this illegal practice. This means not only taking action on pending cases but investigating and appropriately prosecuting those responsible to prevent future disappearances.